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Visuals: Two films from San Francisco artist Frederic Hobbs

‘Troika,’ a “modern morality play,” and ‘Roseland,’ a “philosophical fuck film”

Movie clapper

Movie clapper.

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Frederic Hobbs is a San Francisco artist who began as a violent, expressionistic painter and sculptor of contemporary Witches’ Sabbaths, sacrificial rites, and other offspring of The Sleep of Reason. In the early Sixties, he started moving his art into the streets, first by way of mutilated Everymen, deformed Earth Mothers and, grotesque demons that rolled about on wheels; later with mythological monsters rising out of procrustean slags of plexiglass mounted on stripped-down auto chassis, which he drove cross country while wearing an orange space suit.

In the last three years, Hobbs has turned to epic, feature-length color film fantasies, first with a “modern morality play” called Troika, and now Roseland, a “metaphysical skin-flick” or “philosophical fuck film.” The idea is to extend art into life; in form, at least, Troika never moves much beyond expressionistic theater, while Roseland is a relatively more conventional film in the sense that it is observed rather than experienced. Hobbs’ theater, however, is unique, powerful, and, in Troika’s overwhelming finale, total. His approach to film courts comparison to Fellini in sweep and style, to Bergman in concentration and intensity, and to Truffaut in the whimsical use of plagiarisms and paraphrases of old movie classics and in deft juxtaposition of moods and genres, all adding up to a kind of one-man American New Wave. Hobbs’ production methods hold the promise of a new alternative both to Hollywood and the solo operation: The overground-underground film, independently conceived, written, and directed; filmed by top professional cameramen; acted by everyone from professionals to amateurs, pro basketball players, and burlesque queens; making use of original paintings and sculptures as backgrounds and props;— – and all this zeroing in at less than $40,000, including the enlargement from 16 millimeter to 35.

Both Troika and Roseland reflect a kind of primitive, eccentric, erratic, and brilliant talent, deceptively polished, raw and unwashed, filled with flashes of madgenius and shot through with serious flaws; depending on your point of view, the two films are qualified triumphs or qualified failures. They are what Dwight MacDonald used to call bad good films, as opposed to good bad films. The latter are hopeless beyond repair because they are impeccable mediocrities. Hobbs’ films aim heroically for the stars, often they hit, and where they miss you feel impelled to help him fix them up so they can realize their full potential. In balance, they are extraordinary, immensely accomplished and even more promising works, and ultimately they carry a powerful personal message about individual salvation; in this sense, they succeed in extending art into life, to a potential mass audience and, with Roseland, even to the confines of the skin-flick house.

Hobbs sees himself as a kind of one-man revolution or, more precisely, an apocalypse; from this stem his strongest artistic virtues, as well as some of his shortcomings. His goal is a new Eden, his strategy a universal spiritual catharsis, a liberation of both creative and sexual energies from the traditional and more newly established forms of social and personal bondage. His major weapons are a strange mixture of satire and seriousness, lyricism and savage attack, bundled up in a package of surrealism and symbol, shock, surprise, and self-parody.

Hobbs’ two major inspirations have been Goya and the folk idols used in pagan rituals and primitive religious processions; like the scapegoats of ancient Judea which were burdened with the community’s collective sins and guilts and then driven away, Hobbs’ early “parade sculptures” were objects that you confronted with a momentary shock of horrific recognition, followed by a cleansing, joyous laughter as you watched them rattle down the street.

That, at least, was the idea, and if the average man-on-the-street didn’t respond to the full significance of such symbols as the Trojan Horse, that was more his problem than Hobbs.’ The same inspiration lies behind the films, though with different approaches and emphases – —the oppressive social institutions, the personal guilts, fears, frustrations, and shackling dogmas are piled up in a dense, cumulative crescendo under which the individual finally cracks into sanity, or is symbolically killed and reborn.

Troika is a fable about creative frustration liberated through sex in a momentous crescendo of excruciating intensity; Roseland is a parable of sexual hangups purged through art in a sustained mood of outrageous parody, caricature, and satire.

Roseland grew out of Troika in a curious way. Following Troika’s relative success in the art house circuit, Hobbs was approached by the San Francisco skin-flick czar, Habib Afif Carouba, with the proposition that he film a feature-length porny. Hobbs responded to the challenge in typical fashion: he would do a skin-flick that would also be a subversive satire on skin-flicks. “I wanted to see if I could take a piece of shit and make it carry an artistic statement,” says Hobbs.

Carouba put up most of the money, while Hobbs dashed out a scenario and assembled the crew of top cameramen who worked on Troika (Gordon Mueller, of Inside North Vietnam, and William Heick, of Mark Tobey: Artist): he gathered a cast ranging from E. Kerrigan Prescott, an Old Vic’s veteran, to burlesque dancers Marilyn Mansfield and Tiny Bubbles, as well as such supporting groups as the Loading Zone and Magic Theater, Filming took a total of 27 days, and the budget came in at a little more than $35,000. Largest single item was for photography, with most of the other principals accepting offers of a piece of the action. Hobbs says he was given a completely free hand in the production, other than having to see to it that the sex scenes were duly prolonged and that “no one should laugh during the fucking.”

In contrast to Troika, which begins and ends with a scene showing Hobbs at work on a grotesque, mythological mural, thus erecting a “frame” of artistic creativity around the story, Roseland is placed in a framework of gross reality provided by the narration of a superb non-actor named H.K. Bauer. Bauer has the appearance and manner of the caricature of small-town Southern bulls used in the Dodge TV commercials; he speaks in an oil-roustabout’s vocabulary of pissants and four-letter words and with an accent to match, and his lines provide the most consistently hilarious parts of the film’s dialogue, or monologue.

The “story” centers on a former big-time show-biz personality named Adam Wainwright (Prescott) who goes berserk after seeing a reproduction of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights; he is especially obsessed with the image of a rose growing out of an asshole, Adam’s fall from stardom reaches a dramatic climax when he sings a big production number called “You Can’t Fuck Around With Love” on the Ed Sullivan Show.

As the film opens, he is engaged in a night commando raid on the Lena-Bremerhaven Institute for Behaviorial Studies, from which he steals nudie “research” films— – swinging down from the rafters in a brilliant parody on Tarzan, werewolf movies, and the Phantom of the Opera, over the music of “Indian Love Call.”

While undergoing psychoanalysis with Dr. Sistine Skate, Adam lapses into a sequence of black-and-white fantasies, including a ritual staged by nude members of the Magic Theater around a towering, 20-feet high “Penis Icon,” and one of the films mandatory fuck scenes, with Princess Moon (played by super-bod Peggy Browne) submerged in a tub of soap suds; afterward they are both ritualistically beaten and then escape together, bareass and bareback on a convenient horse.

Adam is summarily kicked out of therapy when he can’t pay his bill, and finds work as a ticket-taker at a burlesque house, providing the excuse for some incredible footage of Miss Mansfield – —who looks like the fat lady from 81/2 with a G-string – —going through a fantastic sequence of bumps and grinds. Adam seeks help from a priest, Father Finney (played by Pierre Delattre, founder of the Bread and Wine Mission in North Beach in the Fifties), a mod-style clergyman who masks his own voyeurism behind membership on censorship committees and research into New Morality; he tries to return to show business via a penthouse interview with a big producer, who loudly proclaims Adam’s talent and politely kisses him off.

Back in the empty burlesque house, Adam goes on stage and puts on an exhibitionistic strip routine, whereupon the psychoanalyst happens on the scene and commits him to a sanitarium. Here he makes it tandem with a pair of nurses, and after they leave, a black inmate who calls himself Hieronymous Bosch (Christopher Brooks) emerges from under the bed, scarfs down Adam’s breakfast, and – —illustrated by a series of Hobbs’ murals that magically appear on the hospital room walls— – convinces Adam that everyone else is more insane than he. Brooks delivers, in fact, a remarkably effective ten-minute speech in which a profound philosophical message is deftly brought off with zip and jive, finger-popping style: “Everyman is an artist; we’re all voyeurs. Art is the ultimate reality. You don’t have to make things… it’s all there in your mind.”

At this point, Dr. Skate reappears, burns the paintings, and spirits Adam and the Magic Theater people back to the Prometheian prick at the center of the Garden of Earthly Delights, over which Skate flies in a helicopter spewing noxious red gases.

A tidal wave follows, leaving only remnants of the garden and the collosal cock floating on the water. Finally, in the most memorable film ending since Dr. Strangelove, Adam rises from the water, climbs onto the great phallus, and unzips it to reveal his gossamer dream girl (whose remote image recurs throughout the picture) lying on a bed of roses; they hump, a rose growing out of his asshole, while the penis carries them off into a soft-focus infinity, over the musical background of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”

The sum total of all this is a suigeneris Hobbspodge, like a gigantic stew presided over by a berserk chef who tosses in every ingredient that comes to hand, many of which fail to blend or even to meaningfully juxtapose, and yet mixing together on sheer bravado and propulsive momentum. Roseland contains nothing to equal the intensity of Troika’s grand finale, but it is more consistent in both pacing and humor, beginning and ending strongly with a lag of perhaps two cigarettes’ duration in the middle.

A persistent weakness in both films is dialogue, which is rarely as funny as it needs to be to match the brilliance of the visual trips; it lacks the verbal sparkle required for a stylized comedy of ideas, as opposed to a drama of personalities and people. E. Kerrigan Prescott is something of an anomaly in Roseland’s context of deliberate caricature and over-acted orgasms, his acting too good to sustain the tone of conscious the atricality, not good enough to come across with convincing individuality; he seems to have trouble deciding if Adam is a campy fag or a basically healthy babe-in-the-woods, and though he brings the role a feeling of virgin innocence, one keeps wishing for the seething perversity of a Peter Sellers.

Like many other one-man revolutions, Hobbs feels compelled to turn his guns on too many targets. He spends a great deal of time beating horses that are long since dead for many of the rest of us: Hollywood producers, organized religion, psychiatrists, college administrators and/or militants – —thereby lapsing into a sophomorism that more than any other quality, mars the first two parts of Troika and the mid-section of Roseland.

It is as a skin-flick satire and a serious, “message” film that Roseland excels. As skin-flicks go, it is a rather bland example: the big action is largely obscured in a blur of shoulders, tits, backs, and hair (not pubic); it would require almost superhuman horniness to be aroused by the cavorting innocence of the Magic Theater nudies, and the over-ample burlesque babe is the epitome of ludicrousness – —although, paradoxically, she also represents something of a climax of raw, gross sexuality.

Hobbs displays a love-hate feeling toward the skin-flick, as he does toward Hollywood, and the triumphs in his one-man sabotage attempts are sometimes lost on people who don’t realize a war is going on. Ultimately, however, the message comes over loud an clear: Just as the sex scenes are pursuing their natural course from sensuality to boredom, they are redeemed by peculiar Hobbsian touches: the cornball bubble bath followed by the zany escape by horse, the thunk-thunk of an amplified heart beat keeping time with the bed and the hammed-up panting and groaning. Like all good satire, Roseland is a two-edged weapon, cutting down censors and porny-freaks alike, as two sides of the same coin; as the good Dr. Skate says, you can’t beat the real thing.

Hobbs may create an unqualified masterpiece one of these days. Perhaps he won’t, since the wildly individual, mildly paranoiac, fuck-just-about-everything, attitude that accounts for so many of the films’ flaws are also his strongest qualities. At any rate, Hobbs’ “failures” are more rewarding than many other directors’ “successes,” and perhaps that is success enough. 

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