by Jedidiah Ayres
In the wake of the recent DVD release and film festival screenings of Julian Grant’s underground crime flick F*ckload of Scotch Tape I’ve read a bunch of reviews that more or less fall into two camps – heralding it as a triumph of small-budget/big-vision nastiness with a surprising element of heart, or as just one of the worst, most unpleasant movies the critic has ever seen. The film centers around a hapless thug, a terrible crime and an increasingly bloody scramble for a bag of cash – it’s also a musical, an element that is as divisive with the critics as the unrelenting awfulness in the characters, and the atmosphere of moral rot.
I can’t take any credit or blame for the music, performed by songsmith Kevin Quain, (though I can assure you that film has made a fan of his out of me), but I will shoulder my share of responsibility for the character and plot as it is based upon two of my own short stories ("A Fuckload of Scotch Tape" and "Mahogany & Monogamy").
Among some of the more thoughtful reviews, I’ve come across nuggets of insight about my work that have deserved a moment’s reflection, as well as many off-base and (mostly) inaccurate dismissals of my contribution from the film’s league of detractors (one of my favorite disses it’s received went something like “If you like voice-over and homophobia, you’ll love this film.”)
But honestly, you can send your flowers and mail bombs back in time addressed to the late-great Sam Peckinpah. More than anything else, it’s probably his own nasty, divisive masterpiece/greatest-artistic-failure Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia that can’t escape the damning results of a paternity test.
Fifteen years into my obsession with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, I’m still not finished ripping er, drawing inspiration from it, and I’m not the least ashamed to say that I do. Nope, I rip that shit off every chance I get and when I do, it’s the best stuff that I write.
Which is not necessarily to say, Peckinpah would recognize, claim or love his bastard. I won’t presume. Hell, even I have to squint to make out my own familial resemblance to the film at times, (as Julian created plenty of the adapted story himself), but in the wake of reading these many reviews, and squinting myself into farsightedness, it’s the Alfredo Garcia likeness has come into starker relief.
When we first meet Benny (the protagonist imbued with such amazing loser-charisma by Warren Oates), he’s playing piano at a hole in-the-wall Mexican cantina. His back-story isn’t told, but the lines are spaced plenty wide to afford an unobstructed view of the large print betwixt. He’s a gringo who has run out of options back home (apparently even Tijuana lies on the far side of a scorched bridge or two in his rearview), his inamorata appears to be at least a part-time prostitute, he wears a clip-on tie, and sunglasses indoors… at night… in bed.
There’s a significant disconnect between his self-image, and the reality of his nature and capabilities. He seems determined to cast himself as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, but, it’s the loser Bogart character Fred C. Dobbs from Treasure of the Sierra Madre that gets name-checked by a condescending heavy in the scene where we first meet Benny – tipping Benny, and the audience, off to the fact that Benny’s act isn’t fooling anybody. But Benny is equipped with powerful self-delusion, and lets the slight pass unacknowledged, and that type of willful blindness continues throughout the film.
In fact, the rest of the picture is a non-stop assault on Benny’s masculine ideal, which he grudgingly concedes by attrition, and even though, or perhaps because, he is emasculated at every turn, and by everybody he encounters from Alfredo the deceased lothario and Elita the survivor to Kris Kristofferson the rapist and the gringo mercenaries who insult him openly, Benny carries on with the quest that will cost him his soul.
Indecisive and weak-willed when it counts, insecure, always reserving action for when he’s out of options, he fucks over justice for cowardice, revenge and self-destruction, and passes up love for convenience. Integrity for self-preservation and self-loathing.
And yet… we care for Benny.
I do, don’t you?
During his many opportunities to walk away from the path he’s stumbling down, his desperation and panic are barely contained, and his pain is so evident… He’s so utterly lost - it just breaks that lump of coal I have the good humor to call a heart.
He’s a loser, and helpless, but far from harmless. Once he’s out of options, he’ll play that final card, his capacity for physical violence, and he’ll pound that note hard and with conviction - his final avenue of expression - like the last key left on a piano.
It’s all leading to that eventually, but as long as that titular object can evade him, Benny’s got a chance. Elita knows it, Benny knows it, and we do too – which is why we’re rooting for Alfredo Garcia’s head to remain out of reach – as soon as it’s within his grasp, Benny’s finished. He will destroy himself.
The characters at the center of my short stories have cast themselves as the central figures in a story much larger than they are, and both take severe actions based on twisted instincts and bad information. They are as confused and frustrated about their place in the world, and in their masculinity and sexuality as Benny is. They construct identities and images for themselves that they fail to actualize, and if given half a chance they will fuck things up every time. Benji and Ethan (from "Fuckload of Scotch Tape" and "Mahogany & Monogamy" respectively) are fumbling after the same object, to which they’ve both (as Benny has) attached inappropriate symbolic weight.
Just as Benny has, in Elita, the love of a woman he doesn’t deserve, and whose character he will disparage, in comically un-just outbursts of moral outrage, intended to distract from his own defects, each of my creations has their own loving one, of whom they will make terrible assumptions, and quickly curse - Chuck, the father figure for Benji and Trish the object of desire for Ethan.
Also like Benny, both Benji and Ethan, having pushed away every good thing and human connection by the end of their story will find themselves haunted by their consciences and conversant with them, on some level, through unlikely intermediaries. Benny spends the third act of Peckinpah’s film driving dusty back roads, unloading and explaining his psychosis to a severed head in a canvas sack on the passenger seat, while (especially in the film) Benji’s physical brokenness, the ever-bloodied nose, and the discolored busted arm - bound with a fuckload of scotch tape – which grows more foul and infected mirroring his inward state, while Ethan (in the short story) hears his Greek chorus in the hair metal ballads on the radio and blasting from the strip club’s loudspeakers, and surrenders himself to the fates.
At the end of the stories I hope that you can feel a sorrow for them, though I doubt anyone will argue that they don’t deserve what they get. Ultimately, like Benny, they consistently fail to recognize grace when it’s revealed, and will always abandon salvation-offered for damnation-earned.
Jedidiah Ayres is the author of A F*ckload of Shorts and co-editor of the Noir at the Bar anthologies. He keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.