Thursday 12 April 2012

The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol (2010)

Director: Aramis Sartorio
Star: Tommy Pistol

On first viewing, The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol plays out like a Troma film that merely wasn't made by Troma, to boldly search for new extremes that have never been sought before, to elicit some sort of response from an audience so deluged by them that it's become jaded. Yet there's something more going on here. There's substance, each of the three themed acts aiming satirical commentary at the underground film industry in California and often hitting the mark, perhaps unsurprising given that the writer, director and star has a lot of experience working in it. Mostly though there's a decidedly twisted sense of dark humour that begins in the framing story and only gets deeper as we delve into the film proper, reminding very much of bizarro fiction. If you've ever read anything published in that strange literary genre, you'll recognise this film as its cinematic equivalent, something most such readers probably thought they would never see.

The man behind it all is Aramis Sartorio, something of a Renaissance man of the darker depths. Piecing together his background, he seems to have started out as a comedian, working sketch comedy with a troupe called Cheese Theater for over a decade. However he found his way into the blue movie business, where AVManiacs called him 'a total goofball that happens to be the funniest man working in porn'. He's best known for XXX-rated parodies of everything from Taxi Driver to Hogan Knows Best via Family Guy. No, I'm not kidding. More relevant to this film is the hardcore horror niche he created with alt porn actress and entrepreneur Joanna Angel: unholy couplings of gore flicks and hardcore porn, resulting in titles like Re-Penetrator, The XXXorcist and Evil Head. He's also an underground movie buff, the singer for hardcore band AmoreA and now an indie film writer, producer and director, winner of a few awards at Pollygrind last year.

Given all this background, I wonder how much of this film is sourced from real life. Watch with that in mind and the first act may well scare you, while the third act will... well, let's wait a little before we get into that. Tommy Pistol is Sartorio's porn alter ego, the star of all those hardcore spoofs, but he isn't afraid to make him look like a total douche here. This Tommy Pistol isn't in porn but he wouldn't mind being because it would at least earn him some money. He's not good at earning money, or much else it seems, though he has dreams of being an actor, a big star. He has auditions, but he doesn't show up on time. He has jobs, but he loses them. He has a wife and kid but they give up on him and leave. Given that his screen wife is played by his real wife, who berates him for being a terrible actor with terrible dreams, I wonder how many takes they shot to make it through without breaking up laughing. Their toddler steals the whole scene.

And so a year passes and his fortunes fall further. He sets a hot dog to cook for twenty minutes rather than twenty seconds then falls asleep in front of a porn movie with a penis pump happily pumping away. This Freudian scenario triggers three dreams that simultaneously reflect his subconscious and the reality around him that he no longer seems to be quite connected to. How much of what we see constitutes each of those and how much is Sartorio roasting his porn alter ego is all open to question, but it's surely a combination of all. I love the relationship between Sartorio and Pistol. They maintain separate pages at IMDb, but not just to separate the porn from the indie filmmaking as they split credits on this film too: Pistol in front of the camera, Sartorio behind it. Pistol seems to be only a character to Sartorio, but Sartorio can't write a story without it filtering through Pistol's subconscious. I guess you're never alone when you're a schizophrenic.

What we end up with is a heady mixture of deep introspection and fart jokes, the neatly surreal and the pointlessly inane, the cleverly constructed and the obviously cheap. It's so inconsistent in its approach that there's absolutely no way that it isn't deliberate. Either that or Sartorio is a trickster genius who made the film entirely to mess with the minds of reviewers. I wouldn't put it past him. The deeper question speaks to how much he's deliberately satirising and how much is conjured up by the personal experience of the viewer. For that, we may never find an answer. It wouldn't surprise me to find that Aramis Sartorio is as much a pseudonym as Tommy Pistol and we really have someone else playing a character playing a character, like Sacha Baron-Cohen on a Möbius strip. Let's suffice it to say that this isn't remotely safe viewing for anyone you might deem impressionable, yet it contains what may be the first fart joke I laughed at since I was four.

The first act is purest Troma. In this dream, Pistol channels Pee Wee, I think, but he comes across more like Adam Sandler playing a retarded Mormon. He travels from New York to LA on an empty train, where he's abused by the ticket clerk; he makes it to a seedy motel where a big Indian wants to film him masturbating ('If we do not touch, we are not gay,' he's told); and he leaps into bed only to be stabbed in the back by a host of discarded needles, waking up in his own vomit to a call to be on set in fifteen minutes. This is the classic Hollywood dream turned horror story, just a little more graphic and a little less polite than the silents used to show it. The shoot underlines it, Pistol so caught up in his future fame that he can't see what he's got himself into. He blindly goes along with every bizarre request they have of him and I do mean bizarre. He answered their ad through Subtle, they aren't. By the way, it's not real. I checked.

Initially I thought the main producer looked like a bald Quentin Tarantino, but maybe he's more like Carlton Mellick III, given the bizarro nature of the subject matter. His office contains floggers and S&M mags. The set is a torture chamber. The crew are comprised of a producer, a weapon master, a cameraman and a gimp. 'Anyone at home that's going to miss you?' is as far as the interview goes. 'After today your life is never going to be the same,' the boss tells him. 'You're going to be a star.' Actually he tells him a bunch of stuff but that's all Pistol really hears. He doesn't hear, 'You'll definitely be eligible to be arrested,' for example. And so to the shoot, which unfolds just as you expect it to, if you have an imagination twisted enough. I doubt you do. Does that set it up appropriately? Well, there's also a fourth wall monologue half an hour in that rings as true as the one in JCVD. It's the dark resonating underbelly of the hollow Hollywood dream.

I won't go into what happens here, but it isn't remotely pretty. If you seek out this film based on the last two paragraphs, you deserve to be surprised. It's completely stupid. It's inappropriate to the max. No doubt, it's utterly demeaning. Somehow though, it's funny as hell. Some might be a little concerned about Sartorio's state of mind, but somehow he manages to combine satire with slapstick and pretty much every level of humour in between. It's the manual of comedy mashed up in a blender and spat out as a fever dream. It may say as much about my state of mind as it does Sartorio's but I loved it. It's so wrong in so many ways that it comes out so right but it can't be described, only experienced. The water wings are a touch of genius. If only the entire movie was as solid as this first act. Unfortunately it isn't. Acts two and three are just as bizarre and, if anything, they're even grosser but they're never as wildly imaginative and they're a lot cheaper.

While the three acts are unrelated except for the lead character of Tommy Pistol, they do carry on a theme, which is fame. Act I is about pursuing the Hollywood dream, about how to become a superstar. Once you've made it, Act II explains how fleeting it all is and how hard it is to make it back to the top. Act III tells us that it won't happen, that the system will grind you down until you won't believe where you end up and what you'll be doing when you get there. These may sound like lofty aspirations and they are, but they're shot cheaply and with an insane sense of humour that isn't about to allow us to take any of it too seriously. So Tommy Pistol takes notably surreal aim at the cult of the celebrity then descends into the depths of the indie porn industry. Each act is easily summed up with a single selected line of dialogue. For Act II: 'Hey, that guy killed Arnold Schwarzenegger and he's wearing his skin!' For Act III: 'I wanted to stab my eyes with Lysol.'

Unfortunately these acts aren't remotely up to the standards of the first one. There's little other than the subject matter to recommend the middle one, though Camilla Lim has fun as Lynn, who fights Fake Arnie without a clue how to fight. The choreography is gloriously and deliberately inept and I loved it. Like the other actors, who have no doubt done better work elsewhere, she has trouble keeping a straight face. That's even more of a problem in the porn section, where the crew obviously gave up reshooting scenes because the actors cracked up laughing and just tried to work around it as best they could. Laughter is the only way to deal with how gross this part of the film gets, because it may just be the grossest thing you've ever seen. And of course that's the point. I wonder how many viewers make it through. Maybe if they've survived the first two thirds, they'll survive the last one. Maybe not.

The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol is absolutely not for everyone. Sharing this with family will get you disowned, cut off and unceremoniously kicked out on the street. Sharing it with friends will lose you a lot of friends. But if you pick the right friend, you'll bond forever and a whole new world will open up for you both. Suddenly you'll condemn Lloyd Kaufman for his huge budgets. Instead of following Caleb Emerson, the snuff boss from the first act, to Troma movies like Die You Zombie Bastards and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, you'll follow Sean Cain, who voices the spirit dog in Act II, to Creep Creepersin movies like Vaginal Holocaust or Caged Lesbos A-Go-Go. Yes, those are real movies. So are Werewolf in a Women's Prison, Incest Death Squad and Warning!!! Pedophile Released. He was in those too. He also shot Silent Night, Zombie Night, which features many of the cast members of this film. Welcome to the rabbit hole, Neo.

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