If you’re not familiar with Rob Zombie’s music, here’s a quick rundown: simple chords, lyrics that are more inclined to be catchphrases for bumper stickers than tokens of insight (“Iron head!” he shouts belligerently in one chorus) and basic 4/4 beats. It’s simple music that laughs at intrusion — it’s not that there’s nothing to be gained from doing so, rather it comes across as though Zombie feels it’s an unnecessary pretension. In a metal world where Mastodon and Baroness are climbing to the top of the mountain with their expansive dynamics and progressive songwriting, Zombie and Co. are at the base in the cabin, drinking beers and trading stories by the fireplace.
His films are equally the case. House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects are tributes to his favourite horrors and crime stories. He even directed another film for the Halloween series, further confirming his status as a pop culture junkie (rather than potential innovator). Every filmmaker is one, this is undeniable, but some are better at hiding it than others.
Bearing all of this in mind I was wary of a Q. & A. session with said filmmaker/rock star. I hoped for something better than Supernova a few years ago where old and new actors were berated by “you’re awesome!” and “you’re hot!” Awesome and hot they may be, it is a process that ages quickly, inspiring a fork-in-the-eye to give it an immediate end. But still I went. Fancying myself as a film critic with reasonable integrity, who am I to say no to listening to a man talk about a genuine career in film, not relegated to media screenings and six-hundred word reviews?
Arriving at the Astor Theatre on a muggy Thursday night, I gained entrance under the protection of darkness and took a seat upstairs with relative ease. He was set to talk after a screening of The Devil’s Rejects. Why they didn’t screen his latest film Lords of Salem – it didn’t get any kind of cinematic release outside of film festivals – was anyone’s guess. (The Astor had screened it as part of the previous calendar but this surely shouldn’t have mattered given the director’s appearance.) My girlfriend accompanied me for the evening. She’d not seen the film, lest even heard of Rob Zombie as her tastes prefer the lighter side of life. (Fortunately she reported back with high spirits at the conclusion of the night but I get the impression she didn’t want to sound like a spoilsport given I’d paid for dinner.)
I’d previously played witness to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Q. & A. at the same venue when he was visiting to promote the 70mm print of The Master. A pre-requisite for any Melbournite who considered themselves a student of cinema, the place was packed within the hour. Sitting front row centre by way of arriving late (I was forced to bend my neck back, just like that, for the duration of the 144 minute picture) I quickly noted my first lesson for the question and answer format: arrive early.
As expected I arrived late. I did find an excellent seat — top floor, middle — but it was too good to be true. I’d managed to sit next to The Drunk Guy. Rookie fucking error. To be perfectly fair, he was mostly nice and he had a surprisingly great ability to guess one’s line of work: “Are you here to see Rob Zombie or to critique the movie?”
This took me by surprise: I hadn’t talked to him at this point let alone explain my unpaid moonlighting job. It must have been the beard. And the glasses. “I’m here to see the film.” Then, “I don’t much care for his music.” It was a rookie mistake: never upset the drunk guy. He rewarded my honesty with a pullback – open mouthed, all shock. This wasn’t a friendly acknowledgement of my apparent faux pas; this was another beast entirely.
Regarding me with a glance that dismissed me a less than gum under his shoe, I quickly extend my hand with a peace offering, “I love Rejects,” and he reverted to the affable, loveable drunk who yells Free Bird! at concerts.
However, this was a complete misnomer. The master of ceremonies for the evening advised of his one rule: respect the audience and for the love of God don’t be a complete fucking dickhead. So it was obvious that when the film began he’d try his absolute best to reverse this palatable request.
Yeah! he shouted, followed up with a short woo! This wasn’t enough so he added another yeah for good measure. Then, as if asking the universe a question, he said to the title screen, “Is this where we clap?”
Previous screenings at the Astor have been very involved. Their screening of Cabin in the Woods, a postscript to its limited run in theatres, was analogous to watching it in a living room with two hundred of your best friends. People were cheering, laughing, hollering and screaming. But that was all-inclusive; to do it tonight felt awkward, strange. Like at a Church service, or regular film screening, you kept quiet until the pastor walked out the front door.
His behaviour for the remainder of the film was tolerable. He only got up to use the bathroom no less than six times (walking along my side of the path), shared about seven conversations with his friend to his left during the running time and hollered his phrase of choice – yeah! – at the film’s fin, earning a rapturous applause. Though it was unclear if it was for him or the very maker of the film we were here to ask questions of. No one asked him to hush either; perhaps we’re more polite than we should be.
This is no reflection on the singer. Writing an essay attributing his muddled fans and nonsensical lyrics (listen to Iron Head for a good example, a song less uncrackable than the Voynich manuscript) to a suggested failure to excel in intellectual pathways is comparable to bitching about someone in the girls toilets in high school. For all I know right now he’s sitting down at home and flicking through a well-worn copy of Finnegan’s Wake after watching all nine hours of Shoah and his lyric writing is his escape. (Part of me hopes Stephen Hawking is a closet Two and a Half Men fan.)
You knew going in, or more precisely, when you bought the ticket, that tonight wasn’t a celebration of intelligence. This wasn’t Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking about why everyone should be a feminist, nor was anyone expecting an eloquent idiom such as David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water. This was a friendly chat over beers at your cool uncle’s birthday.
Even Zombie would admit his gigs, filled with his ersatz horror images and one-plus-one-equals-two song writing method, are on the Kevin Smith side of the equation. “Will you say hi to my four year old son?” was literally the first question of the night. The man who I sat next to even got a question opportunity: “Will you shake my hand?”
A small number of people did make good inquiries. One asked what films influenced the writing process – Zombie openly acknowledges he tried to make a 70’s crime flick – and he went into detail about the role that Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet played on the opening shootout. Another generic question about influences did result in a great story about Zombie’s childhood when he saw a “fat, naked man” who had been recently stabbed “just walking down the street. I didn’t even react.” But these moments were rare gasps for air in the thick quagmire of “Sheri Moon you’re so sexy!” and “Hey Rob thanks for comin’ out!”
This isn’t to discredit the very nature of Q. & A’s. The only other one I’ve been to in person, Paul Thomas Anderson’s as mentioned, was great until it stage dived into stock ‘What’s your favourite film?’ questions. But please, people, try to remind yourself you’re not at a party. This is a cinema with, surprisingly, patrons that are interested in watching the movie at hand, not a barbeque with your mates. If you really must make a point of shaking Rob Zombie’s hand, fine, all the rest of us ask is that you remember the concert is tomorrow night.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire