I had the highly pleasurable privilege the other day of catching a preview of James Habacker’s new movie The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man. Habacker is the full-on auteur of this magical confection: producer, director, screenwriter, and — in the guise of his alter ego Mr. Choade — the star.
We’ve written about good Mr. Choade before. He’s one of Habacker’s numerous hosting personae at his Lower East Side burlesque club The Slipper Room. Choade’s name is rich with meaning; I found this explanation very illuminating. Choade is a complex crossroads of the visual (a bit of Snidely Whiplash, a bit of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and the verbal (his vocabulary is studied, ornate, antique and quaint. not unlike W.C. Fields), and the musical (his speaking voice is deadpan and affectless, almost like a child in a school play, living in a jarring juxtaposition with the other two elements in punkish subversion). The latter element is what posits Choade in the present. He looks like he should tie damsels to railroad tracks; but he sounds like he just stepped off the IRT and only put on this costume so he could rob a branch office of HSBC.
The film is a wonderful manifestation of the same sensibility that cooked up Choade. First, it uses Habacker’s club The Slipper Room as the primary location — it’s so perfect that it’s almost like he dreamt up the club just to be the set for this movie. If you’ve been there, you know it’s gorgeous, traditional, candy-colored, and evokes the great era of saloons, with more than a suggestion of the Moulin Rouge. In the film, the club too is playing a character…a combination burlesque club and Grand Guignol…and, baby, that’s a club I want to go to so bad I hope someone starts it.
Choade is the master of ceremonies and proprietor, aided by two henchpeople (Camille Habacker and Arthur Aulisi). Below them in the pecking order is a company of enslaved burlesque dancers who are kept in line through their addiction to a mysterious green patent medicine (the green suggests absinthe; the addiction suggests an opiate). The meat of the performance consists of burlesque dances culminating in ritual sacrifices in the Grand Guignol show, highlighted by silly but gory special effects. When the girls get too troublesome, the fake weapons are replaced with real ones and there’s a lot of blood to mop up. The end game is the feeding of souls to the mysterious Medicine Man (played by outsider artist Joe Coleman), who lives in a little cottage in the woods, just like a witch or a troll. (Since Choade himself keeps a little boy in a cage, he can hardly cast aspersions). The bargain is that if Choade can supply the Medicine Man with enough souls, he will be rewarded by getting to present the best show ever.
That, by the way, is the template for the Robert Johnson myth, and many a fairy tale. Habacker’s visual sensibility, combined with his strict crafting of his narrative does indeed give his movie a storybook quality, and like the best storybook stories (Disney, the Wizard of Oz, the German Expressionists) his film is a genre-defying mixture of comedy, horror, sex, fantasy, freak show, dream and cartoon. On top of that, he has top loaded the film with underground (and some mainstream) marquee names: Matt Fraser (from American Horror Story: Freak Show), his wife, the burlesque performer and choreographer Julie Atlas Muz, Lefty Lucy, Stormy Leather (and among the extras) Carla Rhodes, Gal Friday, Albert Cadabra, and countless others I’ve left out because I wasn’t taking notes. Our Goldilocks/ Snow White/ Dorothy in all this is wide-eyed young Linda (Jillian McManemin), who drops by the club one day seeking a job, much as a fly would drop by a spider web. The rest of the cast (except the extras) can be found here.
There seems to be something like a movement afoot, a cinematic school if you will, percolating out of the humid swamp of New York’s downtown performance community of which the burlesque and alternative (or “performance”) comedy crowds are subsets. I would include among this mini-movement Lola Rocknrolla and Rev Jen (and by god, I have an ever growing pile of scripts I wanna make, so hopefully I’ll join ’em in the trenches before I become worm food). These film-makers make me deliriously happy, reviving the freshness and freedom and attitude of the likes of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol and John Waters and the Kuchar Brothers — sophisticated, daring, bold, dirty, heroic, playful, defying category, defying the expectations of “the market”, essentially giving the finger to anyone who refuses to comprehend, even as it entertains the hell out of those those willing to go along for the ride. The existence of just one of these film-makers would make me hopeful. The existence of all three makes me confident and optimistic. Something good will come of this in the future.
Habacker’s film hasn’t been released yet, but when it is, I’ll be sure to trumpet the news here. Meantime, there are trailers. See them here: https://vimeo.com/118055482