Incredibly Bad Film Show: Swing Vote

Dir: Joshua Michael Stern
Star: Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Dennis Hopper

The unacceptable face of democracy

What makes Swing Vote an Incredibly Bad Film is not the acting – no film with Mare Winningham in it will ever get less than glowing reviews in that area from us. No, it’s a story which combines relentless implausibility and extremely dubious morality, that had me wanting to assemble a mob with torches and storm the home of writers Stern and Jason Richman – just as soon as I finish vomiting at the heartfelt sincerity of it all.

The ‘hero’ – quotes used advisedly – is Bud Johnson (Costner), an alcoholic layabout who just got fired from his job at an egg-packing plant, and who barely functions on any level above survival. He relies mostly on the needling of precocious moppet Molly (Carroll) to get him through the day. She is the brightest in her class and wants to grow up to a vet “or chairman of the Fed.” Never mind the fact that given her parents and environment, she’s a more plausible candidate for an “I’m twelve and pregnant” edition of The Jerry Springer Show. Election day rolls around, and Molly convinces Bud to do his civic duty and vote. He instead, gets drunk and falls asleep, so Molly decides to exercise her father’s democratic right and vote for him.

It’s a massive burst of hypocrisy right there: why would someone so intelligent, yet clearly smitten with the divinity of the electoral process, choose to commit voter fraud? There’s another hole in the film’s philosophy too: while it may be a duty to vote. it’s not an obligation. If you choose not to vote, that’s perfectly fine too; if you’d rather collapse into alcoholic unconsciousness, that is absolutely your right. Go for it. Frankly, it would probably be best for the country if people like Bud are kept out of the process: what we see here is electoral evolution in action. The fewer dumb people that get to vote, the greater weight given to the ballots of those capable of completing the apparently-complex task.

Anyway, back in the polling station, the worker on duty, guarding the previous flame of democratic freedom has, conveniently fallen asleep, allowing Molly to swipe a ballot and enter the booth. In another remarkable coincidence, a rogue vacuum-cleaner knocks out the plug to the voting machine in the middle of the process. A startled Molly pauses only long enough to tear carefully the stub from the ballot, before escaping, her father’s vote now lost in electronic limbo [that sound you hear is the British electoral system sniggering, as we still use the sturdy “X on the ballot paper” method].

The unacceptable face of democracy
Hopper wonders if he can work with Lynch again

Naturally, in a third strike which doesn’t so much require the suspension of disbelief, as its garroting with piano-wire, that vote turns out to be the deciding one in the deciding count in the deciding state, and because Johnson was ‘robbed’ of his vote, he is given another chance. In ten days, he’ll get to cast the deciding vote. In the meantime, of course, both the Republican and Democratic contenders (Kelsey Grammer and Hopper) are falling over themselves to court Bud. I’ll pause for a moment to enjoy the irony of one of actor behind one of the most iconic rebel performances of all time in Easy Rider (or even Blue Velvet), now playing an establishment lackey.

From here, the film should have gone for dark satire – how far are the parties prepared to prostitute themselves for one man, especially a smart one who knows how to manipulate them? And there are moments when the film does take that route, most notably a lovely ad with the Democrat going pro-life in a playground of exploding kids. It would then have concluded with Bud deciding neither candidate was worthy of his vote – or even more subversively, casting his vote for a candidate outside the two-party system. This alone is something the film steadfastly refuses to acknowledge, even though almost 1.7 million voters selected someone outside the Rep-Dem duopoly in the 2008 election.

Instead, it goes for the sentimental jugular, with Bud undergoing a crash course in everything he needs to know, the night before he hosts a presidential debate. This allows him to deliver, at great length, the sort of heartfelt nonsense he must have insisted on plugging into the script [he helped bankroll this production], in the belief he was still playing Ray Kinsella, rather than a piece of alcoholic trailer-trash who can’t string ten words together.  It feels almost as out of place as the turd-shaped musical number Kevin Bud drops in the middle of a political banquet, though allows him to regain the respect of his daughter. Where the hell are Child Protective Services in all this?

(Democratic) Rebel Without a Clue

The film is nothing if not neutral, even-handedly portraying Democrats and Republicans. In the hands of Stern, this comes across more as bland, commercial-minded cowardice than anything – oh my goodness, let’s not say anything which might potentially offend either side of the cinema-going audience [showing remarkable good taste, the public voted with their wallets, and Swing Vote failed to crack the top five, even on its opening weekend, earning a paltry worldwide total of $17.6m]. Both parties are shown as honest, compassionate politicians who just go a little overboard in their pursuit of victory – let’s hear it for completely toothless satire (Jonathan Swift is spinning in his grave like a Vegas slot-machine reel). At the end, we don’t even find out who Bud picks: for a film all about the importance of exercising your right to choose, this is a complete cop-out.

To summarize, we have a film which glorifies the kind of man most of us would actively cross the street to avoid, proclaims that defrauding the electoral process is noble, condones the media’s collusion in the fraud – a local TV journalist (Patton) discovers what’s going on, but opts to stay silent – and emphasizes the abject failure of democracy in America. The concept that every vote counts is a laudable one, though strained somewhat, say, here in Arizona, which has been Republican every Presidential election bar one for the past sixty years. However, when the vote that really counts belongs to a supposed “everyman” like Bud, it makes me want to break out into a rousing chorus of Tomorrow Belongs to Me.

D-
[October 2009]

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Listen to the Band: The Charles Band Full Moon Horror Roadshow

On Thursday, Trash City hosted the Charles Band Full Moon Horror Roadshow at the MADCAP Theaters in downtown Tempe, and a crowd of about 150 enthusiastic fans enjoyed an evening of anecdotes, clips, props, audience participation and rampant consumerism. It’s the third time we’ve been involved with the event: after hosting it the first time Band came to Phoenix in September 2006, Chris was brought on board to find other venues, nationwide, for the tour in both 2008 and 2009.

I can’t come up with anything that’s quite like it. It seems to hark back to the early days of carnival cinema, when a showman would travel town-to-town, setting up his tent and showing some luridly-exploitational title such as Sex Madness, with separate showings for men and women, naturally! He’d sell some merchandise to make additional cash, then leave town before the authorities could react to the potential moral corruption in their midst. While other directors have done one-man shows – Kevin Smith and John Waters come to mind immediately – they don’t bring quite the same sense of showmanship. Think of it as a one-night FullMoonapalooza [next year, we would perhaps like to tie it in with some movie screenings in the afternoon]

Band is among the most prolific film-makers of his time, and the son of Albert Band, who made films in his own right, including the marvellously-titled I Bury the Living. Charles has 241 production credits on his IMDb page at time of writing, going back to his debut in 1973 with Last Foxtrot in Burbank. He gave Demi Moore her first starring role in in 1982’s Parasite, and has been involved with the likes of Klaus Kinski, Lance Henriksen, Bill Maher and Oscar-winner Gary Busey. Sci-fi, horror and soft-porn have been his bread and butter for over 30 years, and he survived the implosion of his theatrical venture, Empire Pictures, in the late 1980’s.

Long-running franchises like the Puppet Master series have been the staple of video-store shelves forever. The upcoming Puppet Master: Axis of Evil will be the tenth film to bear the name since the original came out, two decades ago, and if there’s a horror movie with dolls, puppets or other tiny terrors in it, there’s a good chance Band is involved. We’re not talking great art, let’s be honest. However, they can be great fun, and are a refreshing blast of nostalgia from a kinder, gentler genre era, before the advent of torture-porn. Much like Troma head Lloyd Kaufman, Band has stuck to doing what he wants, has survived and is still in the business. Such tenacity can only be respected.

Like any showman, Band makes full use of a good title. Here are my favorites from among the 200+ in his career:

  1. Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust
  2. Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death
  3. Teenage Space Vampires
  4. Virgins of Sherwood Forest
  5. Mutant Hunt
  6. Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama
  7. Evil Bong II: King Bong
  8. Robot Holocaust
  9. Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000
  10. Kraa! The Sea Monster

As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of anecdotes available to him for the Roadshow, and that forms the focus of the show. He’ll sometimes bring special guests with him, such as Tim Thomerson, star of the Trancers series: at the first Phoenix event, we met Phil Fondacaro, a 3’6″ tall actor, perhaps best known for playing the only Ewok to die on screen in Return of the Jedi [“It’s a start…” mutter many Star Wars fans on reading that!]. The second show was also notable for the full-size guillotine on stage, used to carry out the live decapitation of an audience member, complete with severed head flying into the crowd. Cool. There was also the Boner-Meter, an eight-foot phallic-shaped piece of pseudo-scientific equipment; in 2009, it was an electric chair, complete with sound effects and flashing lights – I’ll get to its purpose in a moment.

Participation is a vital part of the show, not least when he gets attendees up on stage to act out a scene. This involves “auditions” for the various roles – straightforwardly described as Hero, Monster, Damsel in Distress, etc. – with the title [in 2008; I missed that section this year] generated by pulling random words from slips of paper supplied by the audience. It usually ends up as being Revenge of the Teenage Zombie Cheerleaders, or something of that ilk. The requirements are straightforward: the largest guy who can roar loudest, is the monster, while the female roles similarly go to those with the most convincing scream. Oh, and especially those prepared to take their tops off in exchange for merchandise. Ah, yes. The usual Mardi Gras cry of “Beads for boobies!” was supplanted by  “Box-sets for breasts!” here – and surprisingly effective it proved, too.

Of course, this was strictly nudity necessary to the plot: this time, it was because exposed bosoms were the only thing which could calm the savage killer after he escaped from his electric chair [See? I told you I’d get to its purpose!], because they reminded him of his childhood. Brilliant! Makes perfect sense to me, anyway. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the silver-tongued Band has been producing movies in Hollywood for more than thirty years. Mind you, this year’s show was a great deal more restrained than last, where there was at least one participant who had to be talked into keeping her clothes on until the appropriate moment. That’s likely because this time, it was  taking place in a cinema rather than a bar, with a selection of alcohol limited to Bud and Bud Light. To quote a work colleague, why is American beer like having sex in a canoe? Because they’re both fucking close to water. We will be correcting this shameful omission next year. Trust me.

Merchandise is also an important part of the event – I would say between the DVDs, CDs, prints, T-shirts and the models which are offered for sale, it probably generates more income for Full Moon than the ticket sales. I worked the stalls at the first two shows, and can attest to the feeding frenzy which erupts after the show is over. We had learned from this, and had recruited minions from Full Moon fans prior to the event to help out Scott, Brent and Harlan (the last being Charles’s son), the roadies for the tour.

Charles sat at one of the end tables and patiently signed anything put in front of him, chatting with a long line of fans, as shown in the picture atop this article. I’ve seen other celebrities show up at these kind of events, and it’s more like a production line, as they hurry you through, so the star can escape the unwashed masses as soon as possible. That wasn’t the case here at all, and kudos to Band for his unhurried patience: he didn’t leave until the last fan in the line had been met, greeted and dispatched on his or her happy way. Indeed, Band was one of the last to leave the venue – we know this, because we drove him back to his hotel on our way home.

Like most such events, the work involved behind the scenes is (or should be!) invisible to the participants. We dodged a bullet this time, as last year’s venue closed abruptly last month – fortunately, our Spidey senses had been tingling, and we had already moved the show to a new location in downtown Tempe. When it’s over, the reaction – as with all such events – is inevitably, “Thank God.” But it’s the kind of event we would love to attend as a fan, and when it’s a success, the sense of satisfaction which results is all the greater. We look forward to being a part of the Horror Roadshow again in 2010. Just as long as we can sort the whole beer thing out.