Monday, January 2, 2017

Nut Magnet Parking Lot: the documentaries of Jeff Krulik

The final 2016 filmgoing experience I wanted to write about is a mini-retro that occurred at the Anthology Film Archives (still the most adventurous rep house in NYC) a few months back. It was a tribute to the great documentarian Jeff Krulik, who was present to speak after his best-known video, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (which had its 30th anniversary this year), a group of his shorter docs, and his latest film, a feature that you will not be seeing online.

I will stress that last aspect, since Jeff Krulik has been incredibly generous with his work and has posted for free online nearly every video he's ever made, from the sublime to the ridiculous (and some that are sublimely ridiculous). I've enjoyed his videos since I first saw “HMPL,” but the thing I most admire about him is the fact that he is clearly interested in sharing his passions, and moments from the lives of the eccentric folk that he encounters (and so clearly loves).

That generous instinct means that you can take in most of Krulik's filmography (more properly titled a videography, since he has worked, to my knowledge, exclusively on video) for free online. Before I talk about his work, I would heavily advise, exhort, urge you to see Jeff when he appears live with his films in your part of the country, since he is a great advocate for his work and a good speaker, but also because he likes to spice up programs of his old work with new docs no one has seen, and depending on the venue, sometimes even snippets of really great material he couldn't find a place for (or source material he couldn't afford to clear the licensing for) in his finished works.

So what are his documentaries about? Well, he gravitates to certain topics over and over. The first, best-known are gatherings of, let's say, eccentric or rowdy fans. The second is most definitely collectors and their insular (but very content) world. The latter mostly involves fan-geek males — there are many women in Jeff's videos, but the most memorable individuals are always the eccentric men, with the major exception of the girl who says she would like to “jump Rob Halford's bones” in “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” (Halford responded to her sexual interest in him, “Didn't you know yet…?”).

Krulik doesn't make “fly on the wall” slices of verite. His personality is felt throughout his videos, and he doesn't shy away from interviewing his subjects on-camera. He clearly enjoys their obsessions and is a fellow fanboy (although generally not in the same areas as his subjects). His work captures a very weird strain of Americana, namely the obsessions of the average gent in the suburbs (his interview subjects usually seem to own houses in which they store their carefully curated collections — or from which they're trying to escape into rock 'n' roll heaven….).

The filmmaker who Krulik’s docs seem closest to is Errol Morris, for whom he worked as an archivist (on The Fog of War). What's interesting here is that Jeff has always been heard or seen in his docs, while Morris maintained a Herzog-like distance in his early works. Throughout the years Morris has become very “present” in his films, to the extent that some of his work now seems like Krulik's work — most notably Morris' “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports” shorts about sports fans for ESPN, which play very much like Jeff's videos.

Two other elements strike me about Krulik's work. The first is his “local” focus — he's specialized in showcasing the unusual folk from his part of the country, the Maryland/D.C. area. Thus, while he's got a “micro” stage upon which to draw on, he's actually wound up getting a broader view of American obsessiveness than he would've if he'd travelled around the country, looking for roadside weirdos.

The other aspect I admire about Krulik's work is his generosity with his work. I haven't yet written about Joni Mitchell on this blog (long may she reign, hoping her health improves), but one of her lyrics that has always affected me the most is “For Free,” in which she sings as a professional, admiring the virtuosity of a musician who “plays real good/for free...” This may sound like hyperbole, but I believe that Jeff is in that category, as he seems compelled to share his discoveries, as so many of us who work in access love to do. Thus his “giving away” the bulk of his filmography online for free (with a “101” of his best appearing below).

Krulik, "HMPL" codirector John Heyn, and some fan of their work.
The mention of access is intentional on my part (and not intended as self-promotion). From 1985-90 Krulik ran the public access studio at MetroVision Cable in Capital Heights, Maryland (there's fascinating video of him giving a tour of the facilities here). He thus was working on access programming (which even to this day has made YouTube and other online portals look like places “where the sane people go”) and has collaborated with many souls who were happy to share their work for free.

In an American corporate culture where money is valued above all else, I find it incredibly refreshing and noteworthy to discover the work of someone who wants to share new discoveries, even at the “price” of not earning cash off their creations. That is why I encourage you to see Krulik when he visits a rep house or museum/university near you — attendance is the original form of “crowd-funding”!

There are many interview clips of Krulik available online (check out his website), but this is perhaps the most interesting, as he openly talks with the interviewer about clearing music in his documentaries. He discusses how, if he uses a song he knows is ideal but couldn't afford to clear, that “I can't sell [the film], but I can share it.” He also addresses the “gray area” that many documentaries inhabit and offers very pertinent and helpful advice to the aspiring documentarian while also advising them “don't follow my lead.”

Before I get to Krulik's own creations online, I must offer up at least one of the items he's posted that he didn't make. This is a music-video made by a woman named Ilana Sol, and it is quite… unique. It also captures the home-made, pre-computer-editing quality that distinguished access at its best in the Eighties and Nineties. You just know Ilana had a burning need to share this video.

There are four YouTube channels in which you can find Krulik's work, all of them posted by the man himself.

This YT channel is a good starting point.

This channel is for a “deep dive."

This channel is all Borgnine all the time. (See below.)

And this channel has videos that all relate to Krulik's best-known video, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (1986) “HMPL” (as it is known to abbreviation- minded fans) was made by Jeff and John Heyn, and like many beloved cult items, wasn't made to be anything special. The pair behind the camera just thought it would be fun to record the concert-goers tailgating on the day of a Judas Priest concert.

The result is a very funny and weird slice of history. To those who knew this kind of head-banging metal fan, it's like a trip down memory lane. To those of us of a certain age, we avoided these people in real life but are perfectly fine with watching them preserved forever on video (cue the John Waters review of the video, “Thanks for letting me see it, it gave me the creeps”). To younger generations, this is like a message in a bottle from the past, from a generation that liked to “party” with no political or even cultural aspect to what they were doing. Plus, the fashions, those insanely tacky Eighties animal-print fashions....

"HMPL" is, as of this writing, the subject of a museum exhibit at the gallery of the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland. The film was never intended as a time capsule but it is one, without a doubt. The more I see it, the less I laugh at it; when I rewatch it these days I'm just mesmerized by how Krulik and Heyn captured something that they themselves weren't a part of — they weren't scientists studying creatures under glass, but they did provide these kids with a video soapbox. These stoned Priest fans thus decided to scream, talk nonsense, and ego-talk themselves into history.

The video was such a cult item (dubbed endlessly on VHS and given from friend to friend) and has such a devoted following that it spawned countless “sequels” where Krulik and Heyn (and other people ripping them off) chronicled fans in different places. In some cases, the results were odd because they clash with the original (“Harry Potter Parking Lot” [which should be titled “Harry Potter Bookstore”] contains the smartest bunch of people in any Krulik/Heyn fan movie — and they're all under 14 years old!). But sometimes the disparity is pure genius, as here in the 1997 short “Neil Diamond Parking Lot”:

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Krulik's docs is that many of them are short and in fact leave you wanting more. Jeff seems to have a good idea of how long certain concepts should run onscreen and frequently has made short-shorts out of his docs.

Any good collection of his work has to emphasize his videos about fans whose devotion to their subject is indeed fanatical. Krulik has referred to himself as a “nut magnet” in one festival of his work — while these people aren't nuts in the usual sense of that word, they are… a bit strange. One of the best of these video portraits is “King of Porn” (1996), in which we are introduced to a man with an incredibly large archive of porn, kept in a spectacularly organized fashion around his house.

Another Krulik “discovery” is Richard Wilson, a dealer in costumes and personal clothing worn by celebrities. The short, called “Celebrity Underwear,” was shot in 1998 and edited for screenings in 2013.

The last and possibly best collector in Krulik-world is Neil Keller, a man who wants to know which celebs are Jewish and which are not. The ones he is sure of he puts in his many (many!) binders of autographed pictures, letters, and sports cards. “Obsessed with Jews” (2000) is a truly wonderful portrait of a guy who has pretty much one driving force in his life — from his pride at being a Jew, Keller (who is an accountant by trade) has constructed a world in which he MUST know which celebrities are or aren't Jewish (and even when they tell him they're not, he still wants to include them in his collection as if they were).

There has been no sequel to “Obsessed by Jews” (yet), but I was surprised to find an entire Neil Keller YT channel that has segments shot by Krulik about Keller's later adventures in collecting.

The three preceding docs are thoroughly entertaining, but “The Saddest Collector in the World” (shot in '93) is a wonderful in-joke for those of us who collect. It follows a sad-sack gent as he walks around an Atlantic City toy show, glumly eyeing the items on display, seemingly knowing he can never afford them and yet wanting them. I think what Krulik gets at here is the underside of collecting — you can never get enough of your favorite topics, but often your budget is the final arbiter of what you can and cannot have….

It follows that one of Krulik's more conventionally structured docs is about one of the strangest kiddie shows ever, Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. Jeff's “I Created Lancelot Link” (1999) profiles comedy writers Stan Burns and Mike Marmer, who created and ran the Lance Link TV show. The men hadn't met in person in years at the point that the doc was shot. As could be expected, the resulting video has plenty of stories about monkey actors getting rambunctious as they acted out Burns and Marmer's really, really oddball scripts.

Though it's not on the plane of sheer surreal bliss on which My Breakfast With Blassie exists, Krulik's Mr. Blassie Goes to Washington (1995) is a lovely tribute to the late Mr. Fred Blassie (a part of my interview with “the fashion plate of wrestling” can be found here). In this fanboy fantasy, Jeff and a friend take Fred on a tour around Washington, D.C. Fred lectures the passersby and tells anecdotes from his long wrestling career. The best moment is when one lone woman he encounters knows who he is and she reacts to him as a “heel” wrestler, to which he responds perfectly.

One of the more “personal” pieces that Krulik has done is The Legend of Merv Conn (2007). A profile of a beloved D.C.-area accordionist, the doc has the feel of a piece by Les Blank (minus the food aspect — Blank was big on food prep and eating). It's a charming little piece that offers another face of Jeff's work (which he shares with Blank), the performers who keep alive old and classic forms of entertainment.

The same theme is present in Krulik's slickest doc Traveling Sideshow: Shocked & Amazed! (2003), made for the Travel Channel. The program offers a mini-history lesson of the sideshow, while focusing on the contemporary “freaks” and carnies who do in this century what folks did for decades before them. It's fun and informative — because who doesn't like info about freaks and carnies?

Perhaps the most serious of any of Krulik's docs is Hitler's Hat (2003). It is the model of a well-made documentary, in that it has an anecdotal premise and then moves beyond the initial anecdote to explore historical incidents and the theme of memory (more on that below).

The film focuses on the titular top hat, which a member of a division of American soldiers took from Hitler's apartment in Munich. What is more important here is that this squad had just come from liberating Dachau, so the soldier's appropriation of Hitler's chapeau is seen as an act of rebellion. The fact that that soldier happened to be an American Jew (and, later, a stage magician) lends the story a very emotional undercurrent — and yet the silly aspect of the hat story is underscored by anti-Nazi humor from Chaplin, the Three Stooges, and (natch) Spike Jones and His City Slickers.

One of Krulik's best-known videos is Ernest Borgnine on the Bus (1995). It chronicles a road trip taken by Ernie B. in his custom-built RV — each summer when he was bored, Ernie would take a road trip across America and hang out with average Joes and Janes.

It's a strangely touching piece on celebrity, since Ernie was indeed a face known to everyone in America, and yet by the time the doc was made, his name wasn't on the tip of the tongue anymore. You can see that everyone recognizes Borgnine, but only the older folk would seem to know exactly what movies and TV series he was in. (This is supplemented by Krulik asking him questions about his career as he is driving.)

The full doc can be seen below, but Krulik has created an entire channel for the raw footage of the road trip, so those who dig Ernie (or just enjoy seeing the sites of roadside America) can travel along. You can find the channel here; it's another example of Jeff's emotional connection to his subjects.

The final film I'd like to spotlight can't be seen online — it can only be viewed at Krulik's screenings in rep houses and museums around the country. It's his only full-length feature — the closest thing before it was Heavy Metal Picnic (2010), an entertaining doc by Jeff and John Heyn exploring a rock festival “farm party” held on private property in Potomac, Maryland in 1985.

I will confess I was wary before seeing Led Zeppelin Played Here (2013, final version completed in 2016). As I mentioned above, one of the things I prize in Jeff's work is that he has demonstrated time and again that he knows how long each topic deserves, and in some cases has left us wanting more (that's a good thing, since many docs leave us wanting much less).

I was very pleasantly surprised by how good ...Played Here is. Its premise is, again, anecdotal, and in this case the film begins with the anecdote and then researches its veracity in a journalistic fashion, while also offering a meditation on memory (a fave topic in the Funhouse, thus my love of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais), aging, and the period before Woodstock when rock acts on major labels played to small audiences at high schools and youth centers around America.

The anecdote in question is the fact that Led Zeppelin played a Maryland youth center in January of 1969 as “the New Yardbirds.” People who attended the concert swear it happened and have vivid memories of seeing this band that wasn't yet known in the U.S., but there is no proof whatsoever (no tickets, photos, newspaper mentions, etc) of the concert having taken place.

Krulik explores the basic issue of whether or not the concert happened (I won't give away the film's conclusion here). As he does so, though, he moves off on tangents that prove to be far more interesting than the initial premise. The first involves the fact that our memory of performances we've seen is faulty to begin with — watching the people who *swear* that something took place several decades before, one is left to wonder how much any of us can really remember of the live shows we've seen, especially after several decades elapse (and especially having seen a band that was “up and coming” — or, in this case, a “new” version of an old act).

The second tangent that is fascinating is the notion that Woodstock drove up the prices that rock acts could charge for gigs, and so the local, small-venue concerts by acts on major labels pretty much stopped entirely in 1970. Krulik interviews concert promoters and reviewers who talk about how stellar acts played tiny little venues in the late Sixties — in these moments Led Zep is forgotten and Krulik focuses on memories people have of small gigs in the Maryland/D.C. area by acts like Spirit and most especially the Stooges. [Quick confession: I am not a fan of Zep at all, but really, really love Spirit and the Stooges.]

So Led Zeppelin Played Here is a film for rock fans and concert-goers (who may or may not really remember what the hell they've seen), but it's also a great piece of research and a fine mediation on memory (and, again, aging!). Here's the website for the film — check it out when it comes to a theater near you!

Those of us who follow Krulik's work await whatever else he has to offer us. It's a strange world his characters inhabit (mostly in the universes of their own homes — or parking lots) and it should only grow bigger as the years move on.