The fine line between intrigue and ridicule

Filmmaker Jeff Krulik's career is proof that even in an age as rapacious for irony and novelty as ours, some things are just too weird to make money. Though Jeff may have a devoted cult following, he hasn't been able to parlay his street cred into a slot at Sundance or a cable TV show. And it's not for lack of trying.

See also...
... by Michelle Goldberg
... in the Dirt section
... from January 12, 2000

There are two themes running through Krulik's short films: American celebrity and American banality, and all the bizarre intersections thereof. His most famous piece is Heavy Metal Parking Lot. The 1986 documentary made with John Heyn about the festivities outside a Judas Priest concert in Maryland outdoes anything by John Waters for sheer prole grotesquerie. In the 13 years since it was made, it's been endlessly bootlegged, passed between friends, and screened in bars, basement theaters, and underground galleries nationwide. The movie grew so legendary that Krulik and Heyn felt compelled to satirize their own satire with 1996's Neil Diamond Parking Lot.

Still, there's more to the 38-year-old D.C. auteur than asphalt. He's also made such gems as Ernest Borgnine on the Bus (an hour-long documentary about the aging screen legend's cross-country odysseys) and King of Porn (about a Library of Congress curator who collects and archives smut in his spare time), as well as countless other movies about the detritus of American culture.

GettingIt talked to Jeff about pornography, obsession and trying to sell out when nobody's buying.

GETTINGIT: Has the phenomenon of Heavy Metal Parking Lot surprised you? It seems like every movie buff I talk to has a copy stashed somewhere.

JEFF KRULIK: We're real flattered by all attention and the bootlegging. I kind of consider it in the public domain, though ideally we'd like to be compensated somehow, by getting a high-paying gig or something through it. We now have an "official" copy that we sell, and we have some minor distribution. It's not to make any money, it's just so people can get a copy that's really clear.

We're really thrilled about Heavy Metal Parking Lot's success, but you've got to look at things like the Jerky Boys -- they got a record deal and they had a movie, and those South Park fellows -- their underground Christmas cartoon of Jesus versus Santa Claus really got them noticed after it had circulated underground for a while. The difference is that they've gotten gigs, but we're still plugging away and struggling. However, we're very grateful. Heavy Metal Parking Lot has been a great calling card. An overnight sensation takes 20 years -- that's what I keep saying to myself.

GI: How do you pay the bills?

JK: I'm a full-time freelance producer and I'm working for Errol Morris. He has a new TV show on Bravo called First Person. It's him interviewing interesting and unusual people, and I'm going to be one of his researchers. Hopefully that will lead to other things. I have other projects that have been getting me noticed. The Ernest Borgnine project has gotten some notice -- it's been on some East Coast PBS stations, and I'm trying to get it nationally broadcast.

GI: What are you working on now?

JK: I have a new work that's 98 percent completed called Obsessed with Jews. It's about this Jewish accountant who's obsessed with the accomplishments of the Jewish people. He writes to people to confirm whether they're Jewish or not, and he's made this tremendous archive of people and their accomplishments in sports, entertainment, politics, crime, the whole gamut.

GI: Where did you find Ralph Whittington, the King of Porn?

JK: Ralph, he's something else. I've known him for years. He's like family to me. With King of Porn, the greatest compliment to me is when people ask me, "Is this for real?" Ralph is a mild mannered librarian. He lives in his basement and his mother lives upstairs, and he has this tremendous archive of pornography that he surrounds himself with. It's already been accepted by the Museum of Modern Art upon his demise. I've always been attracted to people like him.

GI: Do you ever worry when you're making films like King of Porn and now Obsessed With Jews that your subjects' lives will be affected after you reveal their weird obsessions to the world?

JK: Ralph is a really open guy. He's been on The Daily Show on Comedy Central, and Extra! went and profiled him. He's always been an archivist and he's always been public about it. I would never ambush somebody. Ralph knew exactly what was going on.

GI: Do people ever accuse you of mocking your subjects?

JK: When you're dealing with this kind of stuff, you have to draw fine line between sensational exploitation of your subjects and just interest in them. You can really be accused of being exploitative. All filmmaking is exploitative to some degree, but it's a matter of how you handle it. I try to be compassionate towards the people on camera. I often put myself in the picture and try to become involved with the subject, whether it's Ralph Whittington or Ernest Borgnine.

GI: You seem to long for a somewhat mainstream career -- are you planning on moving into features?

JK: Yes. In fact, John Heyn and I are developing Heavy Metal Parking Lot into a feature idea. I look to things like the Beach Blanket Bingo movies or Rock 'n' Roll High School, that's the kind of film I would want to make. I never intend to make a coming of age movie.

Also, one of my most ambitious projects is based on a book I've optioned, Tales of Times Square by Josh Alan Friedman. It's a journalist's look at the New York City sex industry. Friedman used to work at Screw magazine and he wrote great stories in the '70s and early '80s. I've been working on developing them into a series for pay cable, like Tales From the Crypt. I'm also working on Jeff Krulik's Porn Nation, a documentary on the porn industry.

GI: What is it about porn that fascinates you? It's obviously not just the sex, since there's none at all in King of Porn.

JK: I've always been interested in freak shows, I've always loved sideshows. Two years ago I went to a big Atlantic City video trade show with some pals from the video store in my neighborhood. It was like a Star Trek convention for pornography, with all these porn stars and fans. The porn stars and starlets were so made up they looked like they were from outer space, and then all these fan boys were milling around them. It was very affectionate -- there was a lot of touching. I was so rattled by it, and I'm rarely rattled. I had to go out and compose myself -- I just couldn't process it all. This year I went back with a camera, and I'd like to go to the Vegas show this month.

GI: Would you ever cross over into directing porn?

JK: Some buddies of mine in the underground are now starting to make porn. Of course, gosh, who wouldn't want to do that. But I draw inspiration from Josh Friedman, who chronicled it brilliantly but was never a real participant. I'll probably go that route, but I don't know what I would do if I were given an opportunity.

GI: Do porn stars make easy interviews?

JK: I find that most people in porn are pretty forthcoming. The bondage and S/M convention I just shot in Maryland was a much different story. I had to keep my camera out of view. I love to barnstorm through a room, but in this case I wasn't allowed to. Everything had to be set up in advance -- I had to do interviews in a hotel room. There was a 22,000-square-foot exhibition hall turned into a dungeon, but I could only shoot there off-hours with people willing to go on-camera.

I don't know what I'm going to do with the footage. The reason I shot it is that I had my senior prom at the same hotel. When I heard there was this huge international S/M convention there, it blew my mind. It's this nondescript suburban hotel. The reason they go there is they're left alone. They buy out all the rooms and close it to the public. In order to shoot there, I spend a year working on a relationship with the people involved. I went to meetings and allowed a very nice lady to flog me, just to see what it was like. I'm a voyeur, that's the bottom line. That's why I love filmmaking, because I can be a voyeur.

Michelle Goldberg is a contributing editor at Shift Magazine and a regular contributor to Salon, Speak, and The National Post.