Jan 14, 2013


True American ‘folk films’ are hard to come by, especially campy gay-themed ones set in small town Kansas, so I was quite intrigued when I discovered Midwestern auteur Steve Balderson’s intensely idiosyncratic and vaguely Hitchcockian psycho-thriller Firecracker (2005); a keenly colorful slice of ridiculous incest-ridden celluloid American pie shot on succulent Super 35mm film stock that – whether intentional or not (judging by the director's debut 1998 feature Pep Squad, I have to assume the former) – made me laugh for all the wrong reasons. Featuring both mainstream feline-like scream queen Karen Black (Family Plot, House of 1000 Corpses) and eccentric experimental musician Mike Patton (of the proto-wigger metal group Faith No More) starring in dual roles, Firecracker is the sort of strikingly quirky (and not in the mundane ‘mumblecore’ sort of way) cinematic work that most viewers will either love or hate, but surely never forget, like Pleasantville (1998) on cock-sucking crack meets Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s dimwitted yet delightful American mongrel cousin. Featuring a divinely deranged dichotomy between the black-and-white banality of small town Christian American and the colorful yet equally contrived world of a freak-inhabited carnival, Firecracker is an aggressively anachronistic work that reminds the viewer that some perversions are perennial, especially those bred in brotherly blood. Watching Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere (2004) – a ‘making of’ documentary on Firecracker – one would never assume the film that the Balderson family (Steve's father co-produced the film and his sister stars in it) discusses their intrinsic involvement in via candid yet characterless interviews is the same one praised by none other than bloated film critic Roger Ebert as "original and peculiar" and "haunted," especially when one considers the subversive and jovially brutal incest scenarios and overall grotesque nature of the film, not to mention the very real human freaks, absurdist allusions to genital mutilation, and overall campy carnivalesque character that pleasantly plagues the picture. Quite honestly, I found the documentary Wamego to be hopelessly inane, uninspiring and a virtual unintentional parody of the American Midwest featuring sentimental local yokels who seem to have no clue as to what sort of film they are working on, thus making youthful auteur Steve Balderson seem like some sort of master manipulator of family and friends. Of course, to be honest, Firecracker is not exactly the most palatable of motion pictures, at least as far as the masses are concerned, not least of all due to it's hyper-homo-ization of the barely cinematically mentioned American Midwest, interestingly inclusion of Mike Patton as a barbarous brother-buggering blond beast, and carnally campy cotton candy colors. Described as a “Steve Balderson Tragedy” (as opposed to a mere Greek Tragedy or a Shakespearean Tragedy), Firecracker reminds one why growing up a sexual pervert (Steve Balderson is, indeed, as queer as a two dollar bill) in Kansas might have downright deleterious effects for an individual.  After all, just ask the BTK killer.

 Firecracker opens with a black-and-white cinematic cliffhanger in a secluded suburban neighborhood in small town Wamego, Kansas. Something seemingly unsavory and smelly (at least judging by a female police investigator's nose-grabbing reaction) is buried in a shabby tool shed in rural Midwestern suburbia, but one will have to wait until the mystifying and hyper-melodramatic conclusion of Firecracker to find out what and why. The film centers on two rather emotionally ravaged and culturally withered realms of curious American quaintness that irrevocably collide; one being black-and-white, drab, decayed and depressing and the other being charismatically colorful, freakishly populated yet featuring equally dark secrets under the superficial surface. Mentally perturbed protagonist Jimmy (Jak Kendall) – a super sensitive fairy of a fellow from a superlatively sad family – acts as a misguided guide between both worlds. The youngest son of a deteriorating Christian family in a blasé b/w world of quasi-medieval moralizing, Jimmy becomes a fiercely feeble yet mostly gregarious guardian angel of sorts for his melancholy mommy Eleanor (Karen Black), but he is no match for his menacing, malicious, and ultra-masculine elder brother David (Mike Patton); a brutal barbarian of sorts who never misses a chance to belittle (and even bugger) his infantile baby bro. With the father of the family in a determinedly deteriorated and innately impotent state of virtual mental and physical immobility, David acts as the uniquely unkind king of the emotionally decrepit household. David is completely and utterly repulsed by little Jimmy’s delusional dream of making a living with his “sissy-boy piano recitals” and will stop at nothing to ‘make a man’ out of the tiny twink of an obscenely gay, pansy boi. Since it is the Fourth of July, the joyous melodies of the carnival have come to the quiet Kansas town and Jimmy is quite excited, even if his deranged blood brother teases him about his new seasonal infatuation. The highlight of the carnal carnival is a "French singer" and an “oddity of nature” named Sandra (also played by Karen Black, if not in a more lively and lecherous manner), who remembers gentle Jimbo from summer’s past. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, his big brother David banged and impregnated saucy Sandra the summer before, which infuriated sexually sterile, whip-cracking circus owner Frank (also played by Patton as another nefarious prick) – a malicious megalomaniac with a peculiar yet potent penchant for propagating misery around his masquerade microcosm – henceforth resulting in the absolute abortion of the festival-spawned fetus, as well as the singer’s sense of sensual pleasure. After Jimmy attempts to save virtual slave Sandra from bodacious brother David’s dastardly advances, he is penetrated like a common prison punk by his bum-happy blood brother. Clearly anally and emotionally despoiled, Jimmy is soon comforted by Sandra – a strong sexual slave if there ever was one – who acts as a strong surrogate mother of sorts for the sad sod. While mentally set on literally running away with the circus as a carny piano performer, Jimmy is ultimately destined to save his family and himself from his macho maniac of a brother while Sandra faces a similar fate with fuckface Frank; a virtual spiritual son of Frank Booth à la Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986).  Forget the celluloid cult item Carny (1980) starring Jodie Foster, Firecracker is the real phantasmagoric murder-mystery deal.

 Featuring triad-titty temptresses, decisively deformed dainty divas, pussy-pushing and purring human pussycats, terribly tattooed reptile-men in the shifty spirit of the Biblical Judas, jerk-off giants with grisly goatees, and other miscellaneous humanoid miscreations and genetic aberrations, Firecracker certainly contains a curious celluloid circus of sorts, but the most malformed of men in the film are those with severely spiteful and swinish souls; both of whom being played by Mike Patton. Of course, I would be lying if I did not admit that I found perdurable pansy protagonist Jimmy to be a most ridiculously repellant and intrinsically irritating character as a capaciously cowardly emotional cripple whose lack of courage is only rivaled by his compulsive crying campaigns and sorry, sniveling oversensitivity, thereupon making Firecracker one of a handful of films where I was able enjoy a film in spite of my hatred for the hysterical homo 'hero.' A chromatic cinematic work of wildly whimsical mid-camp Midwestern melodrama of the freakishly sodbuster, twister-fodder völkisch persuasion, Firecracker is an extraordinary eccentric explosion of aesthetic ingredients not out of touch with seemingly untouchable cinematic works like Werner Schroeter’s Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) aka The Death of Maria Malibran and Daniel Schmid’s La Paloma (1974), if not to a less cultivated and less serious and distinctly American Midwestern degree. In short, I don’t think it would be a senseless stretch to describe Firecracker as a minor masterpiece of kaleidoscopic killer colors that gets to the very ‘heart’ of middle America and molests, mutilates, mangles, and ultimately rips it apart in a manner that the hostile racial aliens of Hollywood never could. As a certain famous Kansas farm-girl character played by a Midwestern-born, barbiturate-addicted 'camp icon' once so eloquently stated in one of the first films I ever saw: “There is no place like home.” 

-Ty E

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