Rick Trembles: Drawing Movies, Making NoiseA comics interview article by: Alison Stevenson
I recently got the chance to do an online interview with Rick Trembles, creator of Motion Picture Purgatory, which combines drawing comics with reviewing films. UK publisher FAB press has compiled the comics into two volumes. The first was released in 2004, and the second in 2009. You can order the first volume through Trembles' website, www.snubdom.com, and the second through FAB at, www.fabpress.com.
I discovered Trembles, and Motion Picture Purgatory when I first heard the music of first-wave Montreal punk band The Electric Vomit, which he was a member of. Trembles is still an avid musician, as well as artist and filmmaker.
Alison Stevenson: When did Motion Picture Purgatory officially start? Also, what inspired it?
Rick Trembles: Motion Picture Purgatory actually started in 1985 with the inception of the Montreal Mirror, one of the city’s first alternative weeklies. I was known for my "post-punk" band and a likeminded confrontational fanzine I'd just published that concentrated on local acts and comics called Sugar Diet Magazine, and I'd been involved in some home-grown underground films. So when I started submitting illustrated horror movie reviews to the Mirror in cartoon format, they were initially well received, but by the tail end of the slasher movie craze, a mid-80's Slumber Party Massacre critique of mine was outright rejected, deemed (in their words) "sexist, misogynistic and derogatory, portraying an unprogressive attitude prevalent in society perpetrating reactionary motives towards sensitive issues." Ironically, feminist author Rita Mae Brown had written the film's screenplay.
I had fun addressing their complaints in a subsequent installment, but later, when I attempted to illustrate how children's film The Garbage Pail Kids Movie curiously and inappropriately overemphasized a starlet's "ASS-ets," The Mirror had the audacity to print it slapped with a "censored" banner over the allegedly offensive (fully, albeit scantily, clothed) body parts without my consent. Whose side were they on, anyway? This confounded me to no end, turning me a touch defiant.
The last straw came when I handed in my review of a Lydia Lunch spoken word show I attended where I had the pleasure of rollicking backstage with the militantly feminist underground musician. A long-time taboo-obliterating prodder of social mores herself, she explained to me how her ultimate special-effects film fantasy would be to have "a six-year-old boy gobbling [her] cunt, spurting maggot-inducing impregnation splinters." Her wish was my command, but much to the Mirror's apparent dismay, I chose the more sensibly budgeted avenue of publishable cartoon ink on paper over film. Anticipating opposition by now, I adorned the borders of said strip with book-burning topless women (nipples imposed upon with censorship banners) brandishing "censored by the Mirror" rubber stamps at the ready, and "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys egging them on. Surprise, surprise! Not only did they refuse to print it, but they permanently relieved me of my duties. By the time new Mirror editor Alistair Sutherland picked Motion Picture Purgatory back up a decade later, temperaments at the paper had mysteriously completely flip-flopped and I’ve been allowed unprecedented freedom ever since.
Stevenson: Oh wow. I had no idea there could be censorship issues to that degree with an alternative publication. Also, that's awesome to hear about Lydia's special effects fantasy. Did you completely stop publishing MPP, then, for those ten years?
Stevenson: Okay, I see. Moving on, your art is extremely unique, especially when it comes to your depiction of the human body. Any formal training, or are you self-taught?
Trembles: My father used to draw Canadian anti-Nazi war comic books for a living in the forties during WWII and was always a fan of early comics, so, over the years, he picked up some anthologies that featured reprints of American newspaper comics from the early 20th century. I was weaned on that stuff. The still relatively new medium of comics was still being somewhat experimented with back then, and the art often looked deceptively crude as if anybody could do it. That encouraged me as a kid to try my hand at it, not to mention the fact that my father never frowned on the notion of drawing comics.
Stevenson: That's great! Could you go into some detail over why you make this your particular style?
Trembles: I picked up on the fact that a lot of early underground cartoonists were influenced by the same stuff, and that helped inspire me even further, especially as I was reaching my teens. Racier, more controversial material appealed to me. Later, with the advent of cheap photocopies, DIY publishing and punk 'zines, occupational hazards such as bad printing quality and size reduction forced me to use consistent, easy to reproduce lines without getting too ambitious with the shading. I also got to know the limitations of my drawing abilities over the years, so I concentrate on what I can get away with. I consider my characters no more than elaborate stick figures I can shape and bend for my purposes. Limited "rubber hose" animation of the 20's and 30's (like the early Fleisher Brothers cartoons) and the "spaghetti and meatballs" school of cartooning (like Basil Wolverton’s critters) were also a big influence.
Stevenson: How do you choose what films to draw/write about? I'm thinking especially of the repertory films, which range from Mean Streets to The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.
Trembles: I have complete freedom, but the Montreal Mirror likes me to choose first-run mainstream releases once in a while to make it more “relevant.” I don’t mind, because current films are usually so bad it makes my job easier. Ripping stuff apart is like a vacation compared to yammering incessantly about something I really like and trying to turn people on to it, because I tend to overwrite in those situations, which means lots of painful editing down the road. But I’m more drawn to obscure oddball stuff. Especially films that make you go, “How on EARTH did that ever get made?”
Stevenson: Ha, I know exactly what you mean. What I personally love best about the film summaries is how they're able to say a lot in such a short amount of space. Plus, they hit the funny bone. One of my favorite strips is your take on Blank Generation. You cover the film and feature snippets of Richard Hell's commentary on the film years later. Really creative and, again, funny. How long does it take for you to plan exactly what you're going to say about each individual film?
Trembles: It depends on the film or how I’m feeling that day. I barely write a word for some reviews. For others, I’ve had to draw the strip on larger-than-usual-sized paper to fit all the letters in. Neither of these things necessarily reflect whether it was a bad review or a good one. Ideally, I like to watch the film and take my notes on it one day, then write my script the next day, then sleep on what I’ve written so I can review my words with fresh eyes on the third day, make adjustments if need be, and then draw it all. But sometimes I actually have to cram everything into one day which is complete torture. I’m a total write-off the following day when that happens; it’s like I have a hangover. Don’t even bother calling, I won’t pick up.
In the case of Blank Generation, since I was reviewing a DVD package, I made a running gag out of Richard Hell’s juicy quotes from the DVD extras where he keeps hilariously and relentlessly dissing the film he starred in. He’s so good at it that it isn’t even detrimental to the movie. I tried to counter his criticisms by contradicting him and defending why I liked or thought some of the elements he hated worked. The punch line was how Hell’s very description of the film as "abysmal" ironically fit the notion of “blankness” that I thought was the whole point of the "generation" in question. I named the heading for the strip “Wet Blanket Generator” as a play on words with the title of the film, as if to call Hell a party pooper. Mostly, I was being playful, because you could read volumes into that movie and what Hell was saying about it -- and he’s so canonized, I’m sure people already have -- but sometimes, with my strip, laugh-getting will trump sober analysis. Gimme a break; it’s a comic strip after all, isn’t it? As in comical? Punchline is king, no matter how anticlimactic.
Stevenson: Definitely true. Now, going beyond Motion Picture Purgatory (although this is also something you've had to deal with on MPP), the music video for your band American Devices, "Decensortized," features your animation. Pretty graphic stuff, often filled with "shocking" scenes of sexual abuse and violence. I'd love if you can delve into your personal beliefs around art being used in such a manner. I think back to movements such as Cinema of Transgression, No Wave, and, more obviously, punk rock. What, in your opinion, is the purpose behind creating content that is so "indecent?"
Trembles: Decades ago, even a few years before the first time I started drawing for the Mirror, I was obsessed with David Cronenberg’s Videodrome to the point where it started influencing my work. "The Clockwork Orange of the 80's," Andy Warhol called it. This metamorphosis-laden 1982 horror flick about brainwashing people using interactive S&M imagery really lodged itself into my noggin.
Cronenberg wanted to challenge the censors that were constantly breathing down his neck over the sex and violence of his previous films, and Videodrome was his satirical take on what it would be like if what the censors were saying would happen to you if you watched too much sex and violence actually did happen. "Censors tend to do only what psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion," he once said. I began to create a persona for myself as a Videodrome-like guinea pig, deliberately immersing my cartoon alter ego into increasingly compromising situations that reflected actual events in my life. The more my comix kept getting me in trouble, the more I wanted to blur the distinctions between fantasy and reality in disconcerting ways that would have people question whether or not my own work was having damaging effects on me just like in Cronenberg’s film. Lenny Bruce syndrome, except I was the only one interested. Complete self-absorption, which, as far as I was concerned, only made things that much more satisfyingly similar to Videodrome.
So during that ten year period between the two phases of the Montreal Mirror, I kept active trying to publish the most excessive, extreme, sexually and violently explicit tableaus I could come up with to signify how happy I was wallowing in my own murk trying to blur the distinctions between fantasy and reality, the culmination of which spawned my God’s Cocksuckers series. I then turned that into a short animated film. Also. by 1989, my band the American Devices titled their first LP release "Decensortized" to commemorate the jovial temperament of the times, and I also made a film about that. I followed it with an XXX animated film about my pathetic sexual history that got me smeared in the local evening TV news. It’s all one big navel-gazing, cross-pollinating meta-muddle of mediums. At least when I have to write about other people’s self-indulgent fiascos in Motion Picture Purgatory, I’m not stewing in my own stink for a couple of hours. The irony of all ironies is how my blasphemes pale more and more in comparison to most of the movies I have to review these days.
Stevenson: Any other upcoming projects or events you'd like readers to know about? I know you've been in films and still do music.
Trembles: I'm currently writing a satirical unauthorized autobiography and a how-not-to textbook about the creative process behind drawing comix and writing songs. I also continue to play in my 32-year-old post-punk band the American Devices, and I play guitar for a new band, Sacral Nerves. You can follow up on all these things as they evolve, and also find all my Motion Picture Purgatories updated weekly at my website, snubdom.com. You can get The American Devices songs on iTunes at: