The Last American Auteur: The Legacy of Troma and Lloyd Kaufman

LK_by_Gerald_LernerIf you had never met Lloyd Kaufman you probably wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a crowd. A short, unassuming figure at first glance, you might even believe he leads a normal life as a school teacher or an investment banker. Far from normal, Kaufman is a giant in terms of legacy and impact — founder of one the world’s longest-running independent production companies, a brash and often outspoken voice in the world of film and an all-around cinematic terrorist.

I had the pleasure and/or misfortune, depending on your opinion, of spending a Saturday with Kaufman in anticipation of the Philadelphia premiere of Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol. 1. To be entirely honest, I helped book the film for the Cinedelphia Film Festival, so my prior knowledge of the Troma founder wasn’t entirely cursory. I grew up a Troma fan, weaned in the early aughts on the company’s quasi bid for mainstream attention with Terror Firmer and then working backwards through their catalog, hitting on the high notes (The Toxic Anger, Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.) and busts alike (Blood Sucking Freaks). Despite this pre-existing knowledge of Troma and Kaufman, I still wasn’t prepared for the man himself, an endlessly complex and disorienting figure.

Almost immediately I was thrown off by Kaufman’s kind, plain-spoken demeanor; having grown up on his films, I expected someone darker, more threatening. A recurring discussion between Kaufman and his wife, Pat, was how to prepare their house for an Easter Egg hunt for their grown children, a tradition they’ve carried on since the late ’80s. This was in stark contrast to my memories of films like the original Class of Nuke ‘Em High. The man sitting directly behind me (he consistently deferred the front seat to his wife) was responsible for The Cretins, and here he was mulling over where to hide eggs from his children. If ever there was a clear case of violence in film having no relationship to reality, it was the man himself.

lk_closeupThat disconnect between my image and his reality was further shattered when discussion turned to his films directly. In a previous interview with the director, it was clear he viewed his work as something more than schlock. When discussing the political plain text (there’s nothing subtle about Troma) of his films, I broached the subject of the E-word. “Exploitation! What do you mean exploitation movie?” he pondered over the phone indignantly.

I tried to back-peddle and offer a vague answer about traditional film classification or something similarly-worded but equally stupid; thankfully, he wasn’t having any of that. Shrewdly, he twisted the knife in a bit deeper, “That’s what exploitation means. It’s a way that the mainstream media and the vassals of the mainstream, like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, could dismiss people like me and Roger Corman who have been making movies for 40 or 50 years,” he added, seemingly seething on the other end of the phone. “It’s like the N-word. It’s a filthy word. It’s a very degrading, ugly word. It’s the N-word for artists.”

I again tried to diffuse the situation with an apology. To my surprise, Lloyd interrupted his rant to reassure me. “No, no, I’m not fighting with you. I’m just giving you some good stuff for your article,” he explained. It quickly became clear that separating the Lloyd, the Character, from Lloyd, the Man, would become a challenge.

Later in the week, when we finally met, he seemed genuinely happy to see me in spite of the brief blow-up. Most of his life, it seemed, was a balancing act between those two personas — the guy responsible for introducing duck-rape into the cinematic lexicon and the man fretting over his children’s belated Easter. While he clearly is a well-adjusted person away from the camera, so much of who he is and will be is defined by the films he makes, films he holds a strong affection for despite the way people like me and the suits in Hollywood choose to classify them.

lk_look“We make movies of the future. The movies we made 20 years ago or 30 years ago people are looking at them now and saying, ‘Holy shit!'” he exclaimed excitedly, in a tone somewhere between salesman-in-overdrive and humbled-artist. “The Museum of Modern Art selected Return to Nuke ‘Em High and they put it in a series with the Coen Brothers and David Lynch and Sofia Coppola and Woody Allen.”

One of the oddest things about Lloyd is that in spite of his love for filmmaking, it wasn’t his first choice. In fact, it was something he fell into. When discussing his career, Lloyd mentioned how when attending Yale University he originally intended to become a teacher before discovering his love for film. The greatest attribute of Troma, he felt, was its ability to bridge the gap between those two worlds, “There’s a lot of inspiration on the idealistic side, because making a Troma movie, the result is always something that the team making the film is very proud of; but also, it’s better than film school.”

His idea of filmmaking, and art more generally, was a further reflection of this attitude. Maybe out of necessity due to Troma’s small audience, or maybe because he genuinely believes in sticking it to the man in his own warped way, Kaufman has remained at the forefront of film and distribution because he’s been willing to take chances others can’t or won’t. In 2012, in celebration of Troma’s 40th anniversary, the company began posting its catalog of films to YouTube. For free. Where others were looking for ways to cash in or monetize their audience through subscription services, Kaufman saw a different kind of opportunity.

“I wrote a book, Sell Your Own Movie, my sixth book. And in it, I think it’s the most visionary of my books. In that book I suggest that the most valuable thing that people can give you is not money, it’s time — their time,” he began, a hint of pride creeping into his voice. “And if people are willing to waste an hour and a half of their time on your movie, which they’re not willing to do with about 99.9% of all movies, let ’em have the movies for free. I think in the long run, the fans and the public will appreciate it.”

lk_washingtonIn spite of this, or probably because of it, Kaufman remains cautious of Troma’s future and the recent string of successes they’ve had, “I think a part of this is that we’ve been around for 40 years, and as Woody Allen says, ‘Success is just showing up.’ Of course, from what I understand, he’s fucking his daughter, but he still said that and I think that’s very wise. If you’re around long enough, they have to take you seriously.”

Kaufman’s future, Troma’s future, will always be one of struggle, and he sees opportunities like this as a chance to stay one step ahead of “the elites,” as he likes to call them. To maintain that legacy of independence so many others have abandoned. Kaufman won’t abandon it — not now, seemingly not ever.

Author: Robert Skvarla

Robert is a contributing writer at Cinedelphia who is finishing up his undergrad at Temple University in Strategic Communication. He writes for a number of local publications including City Paper and in the past has failed to maintain a series of rambling blogs related to pop culture. In his free time, he also enjoys strange music, offbeat art, and weird people. Follow him on Twitter @RobertSkvarla.

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