The Chattanooga Film Festival continues to announce exciting news. A few weeks ago the titles of a few of the feature films were leaked, including “White God,” “The Tribe,” and “The Slow West.” This week, the CFF has released the full first wave of feature films, 13 titles strong, full of variety and independent splendor.
But the festival is not simply a string of feature films. Like last year, there will be a host of speakers and panels, discussions and history lessons meant to entertain and educate attendees on a variety of subjects. The CFF has now released its first (in what we can only hope will be many) excellent speakers by bringing us America’s premier “drive-in” movie critic and film historian, Joe Bob Briggs. A Texas native and Vanderbilt University graduate, Briggs made a name for himself as a critic and television personality in the ’80s and ’90s by focusing on genre films. Festival Director Chris Dortch says that he has a “completely unpretentious way of looking at and reviewing films.
“Briggs is sort of the embodiment of how I want people to think of the CFF…unafraid of fun but in love with great films of every type,” Dortch says. Through his television shows “Joe Bob’s Drive In” and “Monster Vision,” Briggs celebrated the B-movie genus of late-night television, discussing them with the combination of tongue-in-cheek humor and serious study the films deserve. There is no doubt that these type of films had a great and long-lasting impact on mainstream filmmakers, more so than many people realize. Briggs has a knack for drawing lines from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” directly to films like “Jaws,” pointing out the weird and complex influences genre film has had on film history.
My experience with Briggs comes from his 2003 book “Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies that Changed History,” which chronicles the stories behind films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “Blood Feast,” “Deep Throat,” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Briggs has written several books of reviews and essays on genre film, each one painstakingly researched and interesting. Many times the stories behind these films are often more interesting the films themselves. The story behind “Deep Throat,” and the conflicting accounts of the filmmaking (both coming from Linda Lovelace herself) have been recently explored in the very good film “Lovelace,” currently playing on Netflix.
But Briggs explored the history behind the film first, coming to some of the same conclusions as “Lovelace,” but delving deeper into the depravity Lovelace participated in during her years in pornography industry, as well as discussing the financing and distribution of such materials by the Italian Mafia, specifically the Gambino and Colombo families. Even more fascinating is his discussion of the “porno chic” that pervaded American culture, against all odds, for the better part of a year, catching the attention of a stunned media and a diverse group of celebrities, all because of a special talent by an average-looking young woman from New York. The increased interest in these type of films led to more Mob involvement in filmmaking, including the acquisition of Bryanston Studios, which produced films like “The Devil’s Rain,” Bruce Lee’s “Return of the Dragon,” and the horror movie staple “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In fact, most of the actors in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” were never paid due to the Mob stealing some $14 million in profits from the movie.
Perhaps the most illuminating part of Briggs’ books is how he ties genre films to the freak/traveling medicine show tradition in the US. The successes of these types of films are not related necessarily to their quality, although some films, like “The Exorcist” and “Reservoir Dogs” do transcend this idea. For instance, the director “Blood Feast” left filmmaking to pursue a career in creating direct-marking materials for companies. Advertising was more important in the circulation of these films than the films themselves, and the varied tactics (like donating the film to the New York Museum of Modern Art and advertising it as such) are genuinely brilliant. The ultimate attraction to these films is based on shock value, peddling unbelievable or taboo subjects to the red-faced middle classes looking to escape suburban ennui.
I’ve wondered myself why I’m drawn to certain films but not others within genre category: Why am I fine with watching a man surgically altered into a walrus but I reject films like the “ABCs of Death?” The answer, as far as I can tell, is that I sought one out and the other was mailed to my house. We seek the depravity we can handle, but some things can’t be forced. There’s a doctoral dissertation in there somewhere.
Joe Bob Briggs will be offering a lecture on “The History of Film in the South” and guarantees that “everything about this lecture will surprise you.” Given what I’ve seen from him so far, there’s no reason to doubt him. The Chattanooga Film Festival continues to deliver some of the most unique experiences in the South.