Friday, July 29, 2011

Pass the Ammo (David Beaird, 1988)

Our shimmering neon crucifix is filled to the brim with underpaid operators who are standing by to receive your generous donation, so, please, look deep into your heart and give us a steaming wad of your hard earned cash. Oh, and when I say, "give us," I really mean give me. After all, I'm the one doing the majority of thr spiritual heavy lifting. Just a second, did you say, "neon crucifix"? Yep, I sure did. Wow, that must look amazing on television. Why just thinking about its chromatic glow washing over me as I sit motionless in my sparsely furnished living room makes me want to run next-door, masticate the living daylights out of my neighbour's insipid taint, and chug a can of Fresca (and since I'm already there, I might as well grab myself a complementary footstool). What I'm doing right now, believe or not, is I'm attempting to understand the mindset of the type of individual who would give their money to someone who gives them nothing in return. It's true, you could argue they're providing them with divine comfort, but its essence is purely hypothetical. If you told a stranger or a total stranger, let's say, while riding the subway, that you had just purchased a shitload of divine comfort for around fifty bucks, they would look at you funny and proceed to get off at the next stop, regardless if it was their stop or not. Judging by the mail streaming into the megachurch in Pass the Ammo, a blunt satirical attack on evangelical hucksterism from the director of, get this, My Chauffeur, they're sending more than just money. It would seem that nothing is off limits, as everything from jewelry to insurance policies, to even teeth are being sent their way. But why are they giving these freaks all their valuables? I'm no expert when it comes to irrational zeal, but I bet it's got something to do with the sheer size of the hair sitting atop the head of the preacher's wife? The only reason I mention her hair is because its largeness is the main reason I would send them any money (as a recovering Goth, I know hair spray ain't cheap).

If you're anything like me, then you no doubt spent a huge chunk of the late 1980s taping televangelists off the television in order to use their bizarre ramblings to spice up your homemade industrial music. Recording their sermons with a steely resolve wasn't always easy, as sometimes their preachy gobbledygook would seep into your feverish brain. Even though my memory of this period is a tad foggy, I could have sworn I bought six prayer clothes. Preachers, infomercial pitchmen, lawyers (particularly ones with offices in Cheektowaga), scumbag politicians (i.e. all politicians), those chipper ladies who sell bras on the shopping channel, they all prey on your vulnerabilities. In order for them to remove a sizable amount of cash from your wallet, they need to either scare you or belittle you. Your average televangelist does a bit of both, feeding off human weakness and general gullibility. It's no surprise that these shady godmongers have an air of superiority about them, one that definitely masks a sinister underbelly.

Feeding off your nonexistent ignorance by amusing the lint-covered receptors that dot the surface of your face, the Rev. Ray Porter (a wonderfully insincere Tim Curry) is the leading force when comes to distorting the teachings of Jesus Christ, a man who preached peace and love, not greed and pettiness. Hosting his garish gospel program along with smoking hot wife Darla (Annie Potts), even her name makes my flesh tingle with untoward satisfaction, the preacher with state's most hairless nostrils is literally raking in the dough. Hypnotizing his mostly yokel-based congregation with a kinetic brand of forthright evangelism, the oily reverend manages to extract millions of dollars from his devoted flock.

Am I shocked that the Rev. Porter was able to pilfer his followers so comfortably for so long? Hell, no. Have you seen his show? It's fucking awesome! Taking your racist grandmother's evangelism and jazzing up for the 1980s, the Tower of Bethlehem ministries, by adding Las Vegas-style production values, and employing MTV-style editing, have managed to turn apotheosizing into a multi-million dollar a year industry.

You only have to take a casual, non-judgmental glance over at Darla, her rarely violated body sheathed in a silver frock, to fully understand what the Tower of Bethlehem ministries are bringing to the highly lucrative preaching the gospel on TV racket. Smoke, neon, irregular pantyhose, and Engelbert Humperdinck-quality facial hair fill the air as Darla saunters down the stairs of the main stage. An audible gasp lingers in the audience as Annie Potts, channeling Kate Bush while performing choreography straight out of Liquid Sky, starts singing the line, "you're in paradise now," over and over again.

In order to emphasize how much money the sight of Annie Potts, the mousy blandness she exuded in Crimes of Passion has been completely exorcised, belting out religious show tunes as Darla makes for the church, we're subjected to a montage–one set to the strains of "Lay You're Money Down for Jesus" by twins John and Paul Cody–that depicts the complex machinery that operates behind the scenes (the church basement is packed with people whose sole job it is to oversee the cash flow). As we're down there, we also see Rev. Porter blessing the letters sent in by those suffering from various diseases (before he blesses a pile, a lackey informs him of which illness they're afflicted with).

Meanwhile, in another part of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Bill Paxton is being straddled by a slip-wearing Linda Kozlowski (much respect to her for ignoring the waspy pricks who probably told her to change her name to something less Polish). Unsatisfied with life between Miss Kozlowski's able-bodied thighs, Bill Paxton, who is actually playing a character named Jesse, decides to rob the Tower of Bethlehem. You see, they took 50,000 dollars from Linda Kozlowski's dying bubby (Linda's character, by the way, is named Claire), and Jesse would like to get that money back.

Of course, they're gonna need a little help, after all, you'll need more than a fully grown Bill Paxton and a silky brunette woman in a slip (her dainty ankles beaming with Polish pride) to pull off a job like this. Enter Big Joe (Dennis Burkley), a shotgun-wielding career criminal who fancies himself a country and western singer, and Arnold (Glenn Withrow), the reincarnation of one of Marie Antoinette's handmaidens, two ex-cons just itching to "go do some crimes." Now you'd think these characters, simply by looking at them, would bring nothing but comic relief to the proceedings. But they're just as important as Jesse and Claire, even more so at times. Representing the healing powers of redemption, Big Joe humanizes the police with his stirring rendition of "Policeman," seeks financial advice from a crooked reverend, and uses his giant teddy bear-eqsue temperament to successfully placate Darla's impending meltdown, while Arnold finds love in the form of a choir member dressed as an angel (Debra Sue Maffett) and employs his playful nature in a way that allows the show's fake born again director (Anthony Geary) to reconnect with his inner rabble-rouser.

With his team assembled, it's time to head on down to the Tower of Bethlehem. Since no-one wants to watch a film where a megachurch is robbed without incident, Jesse, Claire, Big Joe, and Arnold find themselves, after taking a wrong turn, in the middle of Kenny (Brian Thompson, the weight-lifting helicopter pilot from Miracle Mile) and Darla's impassioned interpretation of the story of Samson and Delila.

When it comes to movies that feature hostage situations, I always side with the hostage takers, as I tend to identify with their status as outsiders who want to buck the system. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your outlook, Pass the Ammo presents a bit of a conundrum in that the character I would normally root against is so darn affable. If I had to blame anyone for this off-putting turn of events, it would have to Leland Crooke (Cat Fight from My Chauffeur). Charming, folksy, and always levelheaded, Leland and his Louisiana accent bring a lot of unexpected nuance to Rascal Lebeaux, a smalltown sheriff who's thrust into the middle of one doozy of a standoff. At first, it seemed like Sheriff Lebeaux was gonna be nothing more than your average redneck lawman (after all, he is duck hunting when we first meet up with him), but slowly, as the film progresses, the character becomes more complex.

Another dilemma arises when Claire points her pistol in anger at Darla during a particularly heated moment. I was all like, get that gun out of Darla's face, you hillbilly skank! Despite the fact that her head is filled with paint fumes and sautéed poppycock, Darla was able to win me over through her dedication to gaudy fashion (lots of slit-heavy gowns), and, of course, her overall babeiliciousness. It doesn't take a genius to figure this out, but while Linda Kozlowski was busy portraying Claire as a bit of a buzzkill, Annie Potts is secretly plotting the course that lead Darla to come off as sympathetic by the time the bullets (and tank shells) started to whiz through the auditorium.

You could say my favourite characters were Rascal Lebeaux, Darla, and, if I had to choose a third, I would probably have to go with either Dennis Burkley's Big Joe or Anthony Geary's Stonewall, as they were genuinely likeable, but not dicks about it. Besides, you gotta love a guy (Big Joe) whose idea of revenge is to blast two pricey pairs of cowboy boots with his trusty shotgun.

Lampooning televangelism is a little like shooting fish that have placed in a smallish container; they're an easy target. But Pass the Ammo, however, casts a wide net when it comes to its mockery. Ridiculing the corrupt machinations of local politics, the power of "Big God," redneck vigilantes, corn-fed reactionaries, and the scourge that is groupthink, writers Joel Cohen and Neil Cohen have fashioned a script, one that features the line, "they're gonna butt-fuck the preacher on TV," that seems to spare no-one.


video uploaded by tcfan123

Special thanks to Russ for not only introducing me to this movie, but for providing me with a copy of it.
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4 comments:

  1. Yeah, I think you nailed all the high points, not the least of which is big-haired Annie Potts and the on-screen chemistry she shares with her equally charismatic partner, Tim Curry. I’ve always held this film in curiously high regard, despite its sitcom-like veneer and its story limitations (the ending is pretty ragged and poorly conceived, but I still love it like I love all my ugly stepchildren).

    I particularly enjoyed Carter Burwell’s tacky and dated synth ‘n bells score because it meshed so well with the insincerity of televangelism. The whole affair has a kind of ‘past its sell-by-date’ charm that characterizes some of the best of the 80’s classics. Gotta also give props to the large cast of enthusiastic Arkansas locals who comprised the Temple of Bethlehem’s television audience, and provided a wealth of very funny reaction shots (delivered in ample amount by director Beaird).

    And, yes, like your acknowledgement of the butt-fucking line, this is a very quote-heavy movie. (“Give me all your Moon Pies…”, “The crack of dawn ain’t safe around that man”, “Bubba, hand your momma that grenade launcher”, etc.) You seemed to enjoy the film overall, tho, and this pleases me.

    So, flow on, Yums. Flow on.

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  2. Personally, I would have teased Annie Potts' hair a little bit more. But not to the point where she looked like she belonged in a Mr. Show sketch (Hail, Satan!)

    Arkansas locals played the television viewers? Cool. I thought the audience in the temple itself were the only "townsfolk" used in the film.

    Speaking of reaction shots, the looks on the faces of Temple of Bethlehem house band when the male choir members said they were staying was classic.

    I liked how everyone raised their hand when the Rev. asked the audience about alcohol abuse.

    Flow on, indeed. Flow on, Russ. Score a touchdown for Jesus!

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  3. Hello,
    When I first heard about this movie, I thought it was that one with Exene Cervenka, also an 80s flick about televangelism. I guess it was a popular topic during that time. Heck, Jim Bakker had a theme park up the road in Rock Hill. Russ might be able to tell you more--I was still in NY when it closed. Speaking of NY...

    Useless trivia: My mom once lived in Cheektowaga.

    I don't know if you are a fan of the webcomic The Oatmeal, but you should at least get an internal chuckle out of this:
    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/state_web_summer#spotify

    (I'm listening to the Hip on Spotify as I type this.)

    I've continued my CFNY countdown on my blog, but I was somewhat flummoxed as to what to say about The Nylons and Van Morrison. O.o

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  4. Salvation!: Have You Said Your Prayers Today? Woo-hoo! Stephen McHattie!

    I wonder if this is the flick where Exene and Viggo first met.

    The soundtrack is full of Cabaret Voltaire and New Order songs. Weird.

    90% of the commercials that air during the heavily edited episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm on the Buffalo FOX station seem to be ads for law offices and car dealerships in Cheektowaga.

    The word "flummoxed" is also a good way describe my reaction to The Nylons when I saw them perform at the Ontario Place Forum when I was eight.

    Justin Bieber is Canadian?!? *sheepish denial*

    Some misguided individual has uploaded the 1985 CASBY awards to YouTube. I haven't watched it yet (and not sure I ever will), but I hear the Pukka Orchestra beats out Glamorcult for the Most Promising Group of the Year award. Fuck them, man, Glamorcult rule!

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