Saturday, October 5, 2013

Post-Apocalyptic American Dream: Rene Daalder's POPULATION 1

Back in 2011, I discovered a trailer for the then new release from Cult Epics of the great Rene Daalder's post-apocalyptic musical of sorts, POPULATION 1. This trailer was one of those magical moments where the tidbit you're given is so good, so electric that your heart races a little faster and you are absolutely compelled to see this film. Luckily for me, not only did I get to see it, but I also got to review it for Issue #164 of Video Watchdog. (A fine issue by the way and one that you can still get a copy of on Video Watchdog's website.)

Anyways, I still love this film so much and really, Daalder's name should be much bigger because the man is brilliant. If this film does not convince you, then locate yourself a copy of MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH. I digress. Below is my original review, so read and enjoy!

The death of the American dream is a black cloud that has loomed over many a weary mind, but never has it been explored in such a vivid and surrealistic way than in Rene Daalder's brilliant POPULATION 1. Imagine a collage art film with melded imagery from a rustic, pie-eyed America, musical numbers utilizing influences ranging from Rene Magritte to the German Expressionists and a post-punk video art sensibility, then you would be somewhere near the ballpark of POPULATION 1.

In a surprise move, this was the first finished project Daalder made after helming the cult classic, MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH. The latter is more traditional on the surface, but has a sad-eyed cynicism towards humanity and a streak of uncompromised intelligence that marries these two seemingly different films together. In lieu of a passive Andrew Stevens, we get Tomata Du Plenty (best known for being the front man for the synthpunk group The Screamers) as the last surviving man after nuclear holocaust. He is America's son, literally, as we get to see him lose his mother, a ruddy-cheeked rural Statue of Liberty (Maila Nurmi), to a giant flood. Along his journey, he becomes a matinee idol and falls in love a gothic 20's vamp (Sheela Edwards). The Great Depression hits, splitting them apart, when she is forced to become a taxi dancer for money. Their paths continue to diverge and cross throughout WWII, where she becomes a popular pin-up and USO singer. Love's bloom never fades, even after she is ultimately robbed from him, along with the rest of the population. Tomata is left amongst the rubble, dancing and singing in his red walled bunker, never wavering in his optimism and patriotism. All this despite him being surrounded by his twin ghosts of America and Sheela. But the darkness of the human condition will always bleed through when things are at their worst and the ending of POPULATION 1 is no exception.

Saying a piece of art is unlike anything one has ever seen is about as cliché as your drunken Uncle's stash of nudie playing cards. But for this instance, I feel like it can be 100% accurately written. It is rare for something so experimental to have such a cohesive heart. This is even more amazing when delving into the films origins, which go back to an unfinished project in the late 1970's called MENSCH. A good portion of the musical numbers, especially those utilizing a large, impressive looking sound stage, is from MENSCH. At that stage, there was little to no narrative and more of an emphasis of an old school musical sensibility, albeit one put through a post-modern art blender. The funding eventually ran out and with that so did access to the sound stage.

Cue up a few years later, with Daalder and company coming up with the a well-fitted narrative skeleton to gel perfectly with the visual muscle that was MENSCH. The sound stage being no longer an option, they managed to build a great post-nuclear bunker set within Tomata's apartment. What started off as a free form video project in one decade became a truly innovative cautionary tale in another. The use of chroma key in particular, while taken for granted now in the digital age, still looks incredible. The whole film is ripe with layers upon players of imagery, mixing old public domain westerns and burlesque shorts into Tomata's apocalyptic world. The pioneering spirit that went into this project, along with the wholly successful merging of the actual story along with the experimental visuals is something that every budding artist/filmmaker should instantly take to heart.

Another great brush stroke is the use of animation mixed with the live-action performers, often looking like a cross between rotoscoping and pop art. Nowhere is this used better than in the “Jazz Vampire” number. This is the first real introduction to Sheela, who is already looking like an art deco horror hostess, but then is further vamped out through some stylish animation. She's given big canine fangs, gets surrounded by black bats and then finishes the song with spitting up a small gush of red cartoon blood onto the screen. 

Performance wise, it would be near impossible to think of a more perfect vehicle for the multi-talented Tomata Du Plenty. Small and almost frail looking at times, his big energy and ebullient charisma is in full bloom here. Looking like a young Sinatra, Du Plenty is a figure you cannot take your eyes off of and will instantly fall in love with. His character has all the pluck of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “let's put on a show” film mixed with a true chaotic crackle. His character is someone who loves what's best about their country and yet gets lost in the rubble of bad humanity decisions. It's a gift to have this film in print, especially given how little footage exists of Tomata, save for a handful of Screamers live footage (some of which is on this set) and an even smaller amount of interviews. 

Right along side Tomata, is Sheela Edwards, a raven haired force of nature who also happened to briefly be a member of the Screamers. There is very little information about her, which is a real shame because she is fantastic here. Distinctive looking, gorgeous and with a volatile voice that is harsh, edgy and yet, really lovely, she is a huge stand out. The entire “Taxi Dancer” number alone should have made this girl a star.
The rest of the cast is pretty colorful, with Fluxus artist and overall genius Al Hansen and Carel Struycken, whom would later on get some bigger recognition for his work in TWIN PEAKS and the ADDAMS FAMILY movies, being stand-outs in their small roles. In more bits of casting weirdness, Avengers singer Penelope Houston is briefly featured, as well as the Mentors front man Il Duce, looking surprisingly halfway healthy and humanoid. (Anyone familiar with the Mentors and their GG Allin-esque work will understand exactly where I am coming from on this. For anyone who isn't, feel free to check out the episode of Jerry Springer where he and members of GWAR have a debate. It's brilliantly ridiculous.)

Music wise, POPULATION 1 is like if Berthold Brecht put on a post-apocalyptic Broadway show with a punk rock DIY ethic. The concept of the musical number is generally an artificial one. Nine times out of ten, most people are not going to randomly break out into song. However, with the emphasis on wild visuals and experimental video techniques, the musical numbers here feel as natural as a heart beat. Having such energetic and kinetically charismatic performers like Du Plenty and Sheela don't hurt either. 

For a relatively obscure film that has been resting in the weeds of cult film for the past few years, Cult Epics has done an absolutely stellar job here. Just having it legally available at all is sweet, but there is so much icing with this release. For starters, the print looks incredibly bright and crisp. Given that a bulk of the media here is based in video, not film, makes it even more amazing. The 1.33.1 aspect ratio is pristine, as is the audio, boasting a Dolby digital 2.0 stereo sound. All and all, it's a near perfect presentation.

But to keep the viewer feeling spoiled, there are more useful extras here than you can shake a post-punk stick at. Disc One features the original trailer and a re-cut one that is concurrent with the DVD release. There's also a great clip of the Screamers doing their song ,“Vertigo,” live at the Whiskey from 1979 and some rare audio tracks featuring Tomata and Sheela performing some of the songs from the film. The real gift here is the clips from the unfinished MENSCH. Not only do you get to see some of the genesis of POPULATION 1, but you also get an extension of Penelope Houston's scene, including a song that didn't make the director's cut. There's also a whole scene with Al Hansen singing and playing the accordion that definitely should have made the cut. There's also a still gallery and the trailer for the “Palace of Variety” multimedia art performance, which was coincidentally the Screamers' last live show. 

 Disc two features the Frans Bromet short mockumentary, JE MAINTIENDRAI, with the director visiting his old friend Daalder in Hollywood. Featuring POPULATION 1 co-stars Hansen and Carel Struycken, with the latter wearing his costume from his role as “the Brute” in the SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB movie, the loose plot is centered on Daalder making a slavery film set in the urban decay of Los Angeles as the background. It's cute and features some amazing footage of a now long gone LA.
There's an entire Screamers live show included, which is incredible. Despite their big cult status in the West Coast punk scene, there is not a lot of documentation, video and otherwise, of their performances. So this is fantastic, as is the recent and fairly comprehensive sit-down interview with Daalder himself. He gets to talk about his time apprenticing Russ Meyer, leading to him contributing to the Sex Pistols film, THE GREAT ROCK & ROLL SWINDLE, he briefly talks about MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH and of course, POPULATION 1. 

In addition to that, there is a sweet tribute to Tomata, focused mainly on the paintings he created after his work with the Screamers. There's a tasty sample of a documentary about Al Hansen entitled THE MATCHSTICK TRAVELER and some outtakes from the VAMPIRA documentary. To finish it all off, there's a never released music video for Penelope Houston's song “Girls,” capping off one sweet-sweet set.
POPULATION 1, in an age of hyper-scare about the end of the world, whether it is from a millionaire religious fundamentalist or a state of perpetual war, still holds a power wrapped in a startling and beautiful visual skin. 

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