I had only made a few unloved videos when in 2014 I noticed that “The Tarnished Angels” was going to play in New York City. Immediately I had an idea: write a piece about rural airport movies. Once every month or so I hear Kevin Murphy as Tom Servo in my head saying “There is no landscape bleaker than that of the rural airport.”
I first saw the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” episode focusing on Coleman Francis’ “Red Zone Cuba” when I was about eight years old and have been obsessed. My family used to strap a portable TV to one of the bucket seats in our Toyota Previa and we’d mainline “MST3K” episodes on road trips. “Red Zone Cuba” (an desperate rerelease version of a movie initially called “Night Train to Mundo Fine”) stayed with me long after we stopped buying VHS tapes. Just what was this thing? Years later I caught up with Francis’ other movies, “The Beast of Yucca Flats” and “The Skydivers,” and the picture at once became clearer and muddier. This guy thought he was a maverick, he was nominally liberal but chose conservative monsters as his ironic anti-heroes, and he was drunkenly incompetent behind the camera. I have seen his movies roughly as many times as I have anything by Kurosawa or Ozu, because, and especially with the still-funny riffs from Mike and the bots overlaid, it feels like a big bear hug from both my childhood and from the oddest corner of independent filmmaking.
When I saw “The Tarnished Angels” for the first time I was completely knocked out, not just by stark beauty but because suddenly I had at least one answer for all of my questions about Coleman Francis. “The Skydivers” was like a gas huffing, community theater version of “The Tarnished Angels.” I wanted to write about the many points of comparison between the two movies and about my lifelong fixation on Francis and the screening of the 1957 Douglas Sirk film seemed a good chance to do that and more. I wrote a long piece and couldn’t find a home for it. I gave it to Mark Asch, then film editor at L Magazine, and he very politely said “If you trim this to a hundred words, I’ll run it,” which along with Matt Zoller Seitz first offering to let me pitch video essays to him for use at RogerEbert.com, was the proper beginning of my freelance writing career.
Years passed and I never quite got the piece on airport cinema out of my bones. So I started imagining it in a different way. While I was watching William Grefe’s “Death Curse of Tartu,” a real gem of Floridian exploitation cinema, I started thinking about how it was really only horror and sexploitation movies that went out and filmed American streets during the ’50s and ’60s. I grabbed as many “classic” disreputable genre films as I could to build an image of American cities and suburbs and then refashioned my piece onto voiceover and then got to work. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this thing which I knew would be the longest video essay I ever made. But then it hit me: The Unloved was about to turn five years old, and what better way to celebrate than with a smorgasbord of unloved movies? Sure, people loved “The Tarnished Angels” but it seemed neglected next to other Sirks like “All That Heaven Allows,” “Imitation of Life,” and “Written on the Wind.” “The Skydivers,” however, is justifiably unloved but that more than counts. And John Frankenheimer’s “The Gypsy Moths” was always my top pick among his many underperforming, critically abandoned works. This was my chance to shine a light on a handful of unloved gems by placing them in the same context as some of the most beloved films of all time.
So here it is, a feature length Unloved. It seems strange that it’s only been five years since Matt, Mark and everyone at RogerEbert.com made me feel like a real critic, an artist with a place in the world. It feels like a lifetime has passed since then. This film is a way to mark the occasion but also a gift to everyone who ever watched one of my essays, read my reviews, found me to talk about film with me on Twitter or Facebook, or ever believed in me. Thanks for five years, thank you to Chaz and Brian Tallerico and Nick Allen and the rest of my Ebert family for making me feel like my writing had a home, and thank you, whoever happens to be reading this. You make my words matter, you’re the reason I do this, and as long as I’m creating you’ll never be unloved.