It is always a pleasure to come across a real find that will resonate with the zeitgeist and works on multifarious levels: this is definitely the case with Popatopolis – one of the better movie gems to be screened in London this autumn and a cult slow burner in the making. A rarity in documentaries. No wonder then that it has been an Official Choice film at festivals on both sides of the pond.
It reminds us of the point of exploitation cinema and its makers. Anyone who grew up in the VHS/PAL video age will remember Chopping Mall and Return of the Swamp Thing even if the name Jim Wynorski does not immediately ring any bells. He was the film director responsible for these titles and plenty more. He is – as Popotopolis rightly informs us, a highly prolific director with an output that numerically outstretches Martin Scorcese’s. He delivers – on budget and on time, his methods and reasoning fully explored here with a fly on the wall provided by Clay Westervelt and views of Jim provided by industry legends Roger Corman and Andy Sidaris. And Jim’s mum who confesses her love for him whilst showing the viewer pictures of her son at a young age. A nice touch.
Jim is making a film in three days ‘The Witches of Breastwick.’ The three day shoot with next to no money means that there is no wardrobe, make up – or semblance of proper co-ordination. A self confessed movie geek (his kitchen cupboards are full of movies), Jim provides none of the usual creature comforts. The demands of this, the actresses providing their own make up and towels, the crew filming in areas without a permit, the lack of special effects creates intensity and concern. But for the viewer, something different: at certain points it’s like watching a caper movie.
Popatopolis evokes nostalgia: the soft porn film has all but disappeared and this is what ‘The Witches of Breastwick’ is, following the porn industry tradition of titling the film in a way reminiscent of a blockbuster counterpart. The mock sex scenes provide moments of true hilarity, what stays on or off being made into ‘issues’. One actress wants to keep her nice favourite underwear on during a scene – a porn actress, used to better things complains at the use of a recently used sock as a prop (this has to be seen to be believed). The special effects of B-movies of old are used here during sequences where a lack of money and time demand resourcefulness, reminding us of the charm of the films of the fifties, that directors like Corman would provide us with, but with less pressures and tensions.
As a modern satire Popatoplis functions well showing us an attitudinal shift in mores: in an opening sequence, Jim is waiting for an actress to turn up for an interview. She eventually drives in late to see him, without much of an apology – or a resume, which Wynorski takes as a typical gesture. “Here’s a lesson for all you stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid chicks in Hollywood…and there’s plenty of you.” Modern actresses take note.
‘Witches’ is nonetheless successful having been bought by a respectable amount of broadcasters and has proved as a training ground for one of the crew who has gone on to assistant direct in multi-million features. This is what Hollywood was good at in its production of such films, giving newcomers the opportunity to cut their fledgling teeth. B-movie features were never made with enormous budgets but were not meant to be painful to endure in their making. It is considerably more fun watching the making of ‘The Witches of Breastwick’ than it must have been to make it.
Popatopolis is a good film and a very enjoyable watch providing a cultural commentary on the lot of the modern film maker. The current trend is movies made as massive budget spectaculars (2012, Avatar) or micro budget movies (Colin UK, Paranormal Activity US), where the audience are made to feel lucky if there is any compelling plot or story. Popatopolis evokes the shame of it whilst providing us with both. A fun frolic of a film – but with bite.
While pursuing his MFA at USC, Clay received multiple cinematography awards shooting both professional and student productions. He quickly gained a reputation for his visual approach to storytelling and his ability to work with actors during photography of Roadside Assistance, which went on to win a Student Emmy. In 2001, Clay founded Imaginaut Entertainment, an independent production company dedicated to innovative, educational, and entertaining programming. Clay's current projects at Imaginaut include three feature scripts (sci-fi, adventure, thriller), and development on a comedic home makeover show.