American New Wave: Frogs

Were you expecting maybe Bugs Bunny? So we arrive at 1972, not nearly the best year in the American New Wave, but the year with the release of the most famed film to call the time and place home. Yes, The Godfather is a classic piece of American cinema and a great film in its own right. I’ll maintain a certain confusion as to its status as the most loved of all American films (only rivaled by Citizen Kane and Casablanca). It’s undeniably stellar, but there is a mighty space on the couch between very great and quintessential, and I’ll leave the discussion with that. Mostly, it’s just a film that so much has been written about, I do not feel I can add anything meaningful (not that such a pesky thing has ever stopped me before, but I’m not above bad excuses).

In enters a film with much less verbal blood spilled in its name, but which speaks to the American cinema of the 1970s in a very particular way perhaps just as much. You see, the American 1970s was not only a cinematic landscape of all that is great and subversive about cinema, but also a very populist decade with many, many films of varying quality. I won’t say there was an explosion of bad B-movies, since that is a genre with a long and fruitful history, but the ’70s was certainly no less fruitful for bad filmmaking than any decade before-hand. But you see, bad films adapt themselves to the times as much as good films do – the need to reach an audience is the great equalizer after all. Thus, bad films can be made for good causes, and many such were made during the 1970s – in their own way, they reflect the time period’s greater social conscious, as well as it’s greater cynicism, as much as any great film can. And to reflect this, they bring to the table something no great film, almost by definition, can: the considerable skill of using cheap, obvious filmmaking to make at times grandly, and hilariously, obvious statements.

What I’m getting at, in a nutshell, is that I thought it appropriate to review a bad film for the American New Wave in addition to some of the most important great films from the decade, and I figured, well, why not go all out and choose one of the worst, and one of the ones that means the most to me. And to add insult to injury I thought it’d be funny (emphasis on thought) to review it in place of the one movie almost anyone reading this would undoubtedly expect to see bar anything. I’m so clever, aren’t I?

After going off to the corner and having a good cry, I present to you: Frogs! One of the earliest eco-horror films, preceding Jaws (and the glut of post-Jaws eco-terror films) by three years, Frogs is basically the story of a stunningly aristocratic Southern family out of time in the 1970s (or is that 1870s?), led by a patriarch, Jason Crockett (Ray Milland slumming it up real good) so astoundingly, giddily evil it almost fails to register as a plane of existence. During a family get together one weekend to celebrate his birthday, the family patriarch goes to great lengths to destroy any animal species around his mansion…which happens to be placed in one of the most densely-populated metropolises of animal activity in the US, the Florida swamps. On top of this, he is rather consistently caught up in his own self-constructed worth and very much proud to let everyone in the land know, as long as it’s a message delivered in a whiskey-and-ego soaked Southern drrraaawwwlll of oppressive proportions. That he is born on the 4th of July …well the filmmakers clearly felt they were being subversive by connecting his own evil with American jingoism. Perhaps they in fact were, but the film is too sickly to earn the benefit of the doubt.

The other humans, mostly various family members, differ not in willingness to do evil but merely in how effervescently they announce it. If Jason grandstands, they slink and slither around him just waiting for him to pass on. These are characters drawn in such broad strokes it almost becomes an art-form for them to out-stereotype each other. Added to their general disregard for human life, we have the rather stunning fact that they openly take pride in overcoming the natural flora and fauna around them while also expressing very visible distaste for actually having to be around any of it for more than a few seconds. In other words, they love the abstract notion of destroying nature, but to witness their actions…they can’t be bothered. This amounts essentially to their valuing their father’s property only for its conceptual value (and, of course, the more tangible money it can bring to their pockets). The thought of actually living there mostly detests them. As for the effort the film spends on making damn sure each and every character is thoroughly detestable? Commendable seems the only apt word, but that’s the kind of corner watching Frogs backs one into when attempting to find positives.

In the middle of it all, we have, of course, Sam Elliot playing a wildlife photographer presumably investigating something or other (the movie does very little to define his identity, being so busy as it is with positively eviscerating everyone else in the film). Only two things matter in understanding his character. Of lesser import is that he means well. Of greater import is that he takes his shirt off at various points in the film, for reasons that make little sense considering the circumstances (i.e. the poisonous, fanged animals all around him). But you know, he had to earn those future movie beefcake roles before he got all old, cantankerous, and mustachioed didn’t he (gee, an actor’s life is difficult sometimes, ain’t it?)

So then, that’s about all you need to know for the humans. Which brings us to my absolute, categorical favorite thing about the film: its treatment of the titular malicious philosophers of social justice. When one hears of a movie titled “Frogs”, one expects there to be frogs. On this the movie makes good. But when that aforementioned film opens with a very visible, ominous title-card that proudly and shamelessly gives us a musical sting straight out of baby’s-first-horror, we expect that those aforementioned frogs will be doing some variety of human weeding out. Here, the film is less sure of itself.

You see, in this film, frogs don’t physically assault humans. Instead, they mostly sit around and beckon other swamp animals (snakes, spiders, alligators, the works) to do their bidding. Seldom a minute goes by in the film without a shot of a frog staring at the camera, or off in the distance. In particular, almost every kill is drowned in frog shots (how about that Soviet montage huh? See what could Eisenstein has done for the world!). The film tries, heavingly and obsessively, to make these images ominous to glorious results.

What we’re left with is the film’s most interesting proposition: for all its amusing attempts to criticize human decay, it seems that the animals have done good in watching the ways human elites disseminate violence and responded in kind. The frogs are the wealthy who make the decisions and the other beasts are the muscle, the ones who put their lives on the line for the good of the cause, or simply because their masters tell them to and they haven’t yet figured out a way to unionize as one (perhaps due to inter-species discrimination) and overthrow those frogs who do none of the work and take all of the glory (after all, this film isn’t called Alligators). The only perceivable difference between humans and other species, other than the swamp creatures being reactionary to the instigating human violence, is that perhaps nature’s creatures are both more organized and more effective. After all, does not leftist theory sometimes devolve into counter-elitist elitism, where the “leaders” of the proletariat help them rise up and take over the bourgeoisie?

Perhaps the filmmakers agreed and the film is one big allegory about Marxist theory. But are they in support of the frogs’ efforts? Or do they adopt a critical gaze, agreeing with their end goals but critiquing their elitist means? Where is the film I’ve been looking for all these years, where it is the impoverished alligators, the snakes, and the lizards who rise up and take control, leaving the pesky frogs to wallow in their own elitism?  Either way, for the time being, all hail the new overlords!

See what Frogs does to me? What else is there to do in a film so insipid but postulate why it exists in the first place? This is a demanding film: in order to enjoy it, you need to be an imaginative sort. Otherwise,  all you have is a film shot and edited with all manner of wrong-doings and poorly thought out attempts at radical social thought and that ever-moving thing called “horror”. It’s difficult to tell if the film is the product of laziness, a lack of resources, or very passionate people who just so happened to have no idea what they were doing.

For instance, the crippling, horrendously difficult lighting work on the film does manage, at least, to inspire a rather effective opening with Elliot’s character taking photos in the swamp, filmed with a murky decay, an ominous almost-silence, and an eye for splicing in the still images he takes to add some minor semblance of spooky voyeurism to the film. However, this lighting sabotages any attempt at clarity throughout the film and latter seems like a cheap attempt at replacing fear with confusion. It ends up seeming like the filmmakers filmed and edited the opening, liked it, and then decided to replicate the lighting throughout the whole film without any idea how context alters the effect of a filmic technique.

Or perhaps they just stumbled onto the good stuff by happenstance, or due to budgetary reasons, and the opening effect was not intended at all. It’s hard to tell. The whole film, in this way, is a dreary mess, but it is so fantastically, self-indulgently dreary, that there’s ample room for a good time with the right people and the right imagination. In a weird way, perhaps Frogs is a great gift from the American New Wave for today’s audience. It’s only waiting to be rediscovered. Or lost forever.  It probably doesn’t matter which.

Score: you guys aren’t seriously going to make me do this are you?

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