Tuesday, June 12, 2007

the gospel of the farting preacher

(originally published on the Anime Hell blog, May 2007)

Robert Tilton is the once and future king of the post-Jim & Tammy Implosion era of slick TV evangelists; hounded and humiliated huckster of holy water, prayer cloths, and inspirational books; and flatulent, fraudulent star of what may be the original "viral video".

As host of the long-running "Success-N-Life" television program, Tilton preaches a "prosperity" gospel that promises to enrich its flock with God-ordained good fortune with Jesus as sugar daddy/investment counselor/loanshark/bookie. Since the key part of this gospel - 'sowing the seed'- means sending Tilton one thousand dollars, the only person this gospel has ever made wealthy is Robert Tilton himself. His sermons aren't about sin, death, or salvation - they're about making a vow (to send Tilton cash) and keeping your promise (to send Tilton cash), interrupted only by frequent, Tourettes-style bursts of "speaking in tongues". After being investigated by ABC's Prime Time Live, the Texas Attorney General's office, and the FBI, Tilton vanished from the airwaves, but after a few years of laying low he returned- tanned, rested and ready- shooting a new series of inspirational infomercials from a classy new studio in Florida, which you can catch late at night on places like BET.

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Where did this slick-talking holy-oil salesman come from? Texas, of course. A college dropout and real estate salesman, in the early 70s Tilton latched onto both Jesus and the teachings of Tulsa evangelist Billy James Hargis. Hargis was the first to combine the fire of holy-rollering with the technosavvy of mail order marketing, and his mailings went out to three million homes at their peak. Tilton's TV show "Success-N-Life" began in 1984 and at its peak reached more than 200 stations - a one-hour informercial designed to get people to phone in pledges and mail him checks. In return Tilton would bless coins, pray over napkins, place prayer cords into a miracle wall of prayer, and generally use every pagan voodoo trick at his disposal to convince Jesus and God that little old you needs $1500 for a new transmission. Trouble for Tilton came when word got out that prayer requests sent to "Success-N-Life" were winding up in the garbage, when dead people were recieving letters promising Tilton's healing hand in exchange for cold cash, when a Tilton anti-Semitic rant was secretly caught on tape... when the level of disgusting excess and outright fraud became too much for even the strong stomach of the Dallas evangelical community.

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But it's as an ironic touchstone for disaffected youth that Tilton may have his greatest success. The hopped-up, gibbering spectacle of Brother Bob pounding his desk, ranting in "otoyo basoya" tongues, and, quick as a wink, shifting gears to a dewy-eyed patriarch deeply moved by the suffering of humanity - well, if that isn't good television I don't know what is. Hipsters, pop culture junkies, kitsch connossieurs and po-mo pontificators all found "Success-N-Life" a terrific late-night watch, funnier than that OTHER "SNL" by far. Daniel "Art School Confidential" Clowes devoted a whole page of his groundbreaking "Eightball" comic to highlight Tilton. There was even a "Love That Bob" night at Club Dada in Dallas, sponsored by the Robert Tilton Fan Club, and a fanzine entitled "The Beast Of Robert Tilton". But it was through home video that Tilton would reach his greatest non-sucker audience.

The "Farting Tilton" tape, also known as "Joyful Noise", "Farting Evangelist", "Fart Preacher", etc., is mentioned in the press clipping for the "Love That Bob" Club Dada night (Jan 9, 1992), but it had been shown previously, passed from hand to Christian hand among the video trading network that existed in the days before Bittorrnet. My own copy came via my involvement with Phenomicon, a UFO/hacker/conspiracy convention that was held in Atlanta in 1990 and 1991. We ran "Fart Tilton" on the big screen before the Sub-Genius devival.

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Who made the tape? A collection of Tilton's more inspired moments of Jesus fervor and glossalia, highlighted with the addition of fart noises, it's a, lets's face it, juvenile concept that could have been created by anyone with rudimentary video editing equipment. Slightly more professional-quality copies of the original and a color sequel were included on the "Mondo Tilton" compliation videotape released by Russell Media Underground in Dallas in the late 1990s. A staple of "Anime Hell" performances for many years, the clip has since reached an unimaginable audience courtesy filesharing and the Internet.

One wonders what Tilton thinks of his gastrointestinal success. Older and more jowly, his recent programs (retitled "Success In Life") feature a toned down Tilton, soft-pedalling his sucker pitches for an audience that might not respond to the firey schizophrenia of his earlier performances. Or maybe he's just, you know, holding it in.

artworks 1998-2006

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sympathy for the castlegate

Sure, it was a dump. Even when it was open for business, it had broken windows and sagging ceilings and a funky smell that you could never really get away from. It spent three years vacant, a home for derelicts and stray animals and the occasional body, and now it's a big pile of rubble right next to Interstate 75 The wrecking ball of Price & Sons Demolition has completed its task and nothing remains but smashed bricks, broken glass, and, of course, a mysterious funky smell.

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Thanks to years of hosting Star Trek cons, comic book shows, and the first Anime Weekend Atlanta, memories of the place are burned into the brains of many local nerds such as myself. But I wasn't aware that the hulking shadow of the Castlegate loomed large in the history of Atlanta as a whole. Built more than thirty years ago as the Dunfey's Royal Coach, this sprawling hunk of mid-70s crap sat on sixteen acres of prime northside Atlanta real estate. Constructed in the style that would be affectionately known as "mock Tudor", (if anybody held any affection for it), the Dunfey's nightclub would become one of the city's foremost battlegrounds of the sexual revolution. As the haze from the 70s cleared, the Dunfey's would survive a few Atlanta Fantasy Fairs and Burt Reynolds' car crashing into the lobby (in the film The Cannonball Run), but the future would see the hotel under new management, first as a Radission and then as a Howard Johnsons, and subsequently, the Castlegate.

I've always been told that the Atlanta Fantasy Fair was forced to leave the Castlegate because an over-enthusiastic congoer attacked the elevator doors with an axe. I doubt this story, because a casual perusal of the Castlegate's clients and events reveals that they wouldn't turn anyone away. Gun shows, talent shows, dog shows, record shows, Indian weddings. Pot festivals. UFO conferences. Prizefights. Jon-Benet Ramsey-style beauty contests. Alumni associations. Magic: The Gathering tournaments. By the time the 1990s rolled around the Castlegate was the destination of choice for any gathering of more than three people and less than $3,000 to spend.

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And why not? The Castlegate was conveniently located, it had lots of parking and restaurants of all kinds close by, and quite a bit of convention space at reasonable rates. It wasn't downtown, so you were spared the no-parking, no-food, no-nothing desert of Atlanta After Dark, and yet it was close enough to downtown to make it a central location for the entire metro area. Best of all, you could be noisy, throw parties, shoot darts, and generally do whatever you wanted with the knowledge that nobody from the hotel was going to lift a finger to stop you.

As such, this made the Castlegate the place where conventions were born, and where they died. Dragoncon started in the Castlegate in 1987 and now they fill downtown's largest hotels; Anime Weekend Atlanta started there in 1995 and now we're busting 3500 and using cavernous convention centers. On the other hand, both Dixie-Trek and the Atlanta Fantasy Fair limped to the Castlegate to hold their final shows, and other shows like Outworld tried to use the Castlegate as a starting point and never got out of the gate. Even my first attempt at conventioneering - the ill-fated Phenomicon convention Scott Weikert and myself ran - had its second and final year at the Castlegate.

Part of this dismal success/failure ratio is of course the whimsical nature of fan conventions and the people who run them. But another element is the Castlegate itself. As mentioned before, the staff simply didn't care, and that's a knife that cuts both ways. Sure, hotel reps looking the other way for a few stains or broken lights is good; but ignoring complaints about rats, insects, malfunctioning AC and lack of hot water is not. The Castlegate had a swimming pool that was never filled, a tennis court that was completely overgrown with kudzu, and a back parking lot with more weeds than asphalt. Windows were broken, door locks didn't work, there was a meeting room full of construction junk and a shopping cart from the nearby Kroger, and a bathroom none dared enter. The low ceilings and maze-like arrangement of the building didn't help matters. The guest rooms were situated on long hallways that radiated out from the lobby in two directions - if you were unlucky to get a room on the far end of the facility, that meant a long, long walk. If that hallway happens to involve stairs, too bad! There might be an access corridor with a ramp, but you'll have to find it for yourself.

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Quirks of the facility aside, the Castlegate's less-than-helpful employees frequently made a bad situation worse. Failing to honor agreements about convention space usage and double-booking guest rooms isn't just annoying, it's downright criminal, and these sorts of problems can suck the enthusiasm right out of your average volunteer convention organizer. It was always a crapshoot going into the Castlegate; maybe you'd make it out alive, and maybe you wouldn't.

As the 90s progressed, the Castlegate found itself bought by the Hare Krishnas, who used a wing of the facility for offices and services. The hotel was named in court proceedings surrounding bribes for concession franchises at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport - apparently payoffs were made during breakfast at the Castlegate's restaurant. The hotel finally closed its doors for good in December of 1999, but the story wasn't yet over- amid rumors of re-opening under different names, or the site being used as a Home Depot or IKEA location, the building was used by the United States Marine Corps in August of 2000 for an urban warfare excercise.

Whether or not there actually was a "Dirty Dozen" list of abandoned Atlanta properties that the city wanted torn down is open to debate. The fact is, the property was up for sale for over a year (only $20 million!), but finally the Castlegate heard the call of the wreckin' ball. Atlanta might be better off without the rats, the odors, and the inoperative A/C, but there isn't another low-cost, hassle-free option for the kind of shows the Castlegate championed. The kind of freedom in planning and executing events you got at the Castlegate was a rare thing, and it's sorely missed. Whatever rises in its stead - whether it's a high-rise apartment block, a Home Depot, or somebody's corporate headquarters - you can bet it won't be as much fun, or smell nearly as funky.

(the Castlegate was demolished in 2002; the site is currently occupied by a Wal-Mart).

artworks 1998-2006

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star wars: the japan connection

(published at the Anime Jump blog in February 2007)

Ah, the late '70's. Disco, custom vans, gasoline lines, and STAR WARS. And STAR WARS ripoffs. Sure, our own Roger Corman got into the act two or three or four times, and even such powerhouses as Disney and Universal were tempted into jumping on the bandwagon, not to mention the Italians with their cinematic masterwork, the aptly named STAR CRASH (cough cough). However, I maintain that for sheer entertainment value, you can't beat Japan. Long known as the home of violent giant robot cartoons and rubber-suit monster epics, this island nation turned its energies towards SF-action films and proved they can make the most original ripoffs around.
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I was lucky enough to see Toei's MESSAGE FROM SPACE in a theater, and young enough to enjoy it. Anyone older than 10 would have immediately dismissed it as a pathetic STAR WARS imitation. Years later I was able to appreciate the fact that it was one of Vic Morrow's last roles, that Philip Casnoff would go on to play Frank Sinatra, and that the script was by one of Japan's foremost comics legends, Shotaro Ishinomori. However, at the time, all I knew was that this movie had it all. Space hot-rodders, evil silver-painted aliens, the destruction of the moon, a funny robot, laser guns, swordfights, the works.

The script is actually a SF reworking of a tale from feudal Japan known as the 'Legend Of The Eight Samurai', in which a desperate monarch sends eight magic seeds out into the world. Whoever finds one of the seeds is chosen as a holy warrior and charged with saving the kingdom. Add some spaceships and explosions, and you've got MESSAGE FROM SPACE, as the peaceful planet Tulusia is conquered by the evil Govannis. The Tulusians send out the magic seeds along with the requisite beautiful young space princess, played by Sue Shiomi, fresh from the starring role in Toei's SISTER STREETFIGHTER. Chosen by the seeds are two Earth space-delinquents, a spoiled young rich girl, a sleazy grifter, a retired alcholic space general (dialogue when meeting the remaining heroes: "I must have gotten drunk, wandered in here, and fallen asleep."), his robot comedy-relief sidekick, the true heir to the Govannis throne who was deposed and left to die on a desolate planet, and lastly, the Tulusian who... well, I don't want to spoil it. Let's just say that the mixture of American and Japanese acting talent works fairly well.

The dialog is naturally goofy-sounding. When discussing combining her spaceship with the two hot-rods, our spoiled rich girl Maya says "Oh GAWD what a machine it would be!" The Western actors are pretty much left to their own devices, to over-or-under-act as they see fit. Speaking of under-acting, Vic Morrow wears a sucession of costumes, each more embarrassing than the last.

The film climaxes with a combination trench / fly-into-the-interior-of-the-enemy-base-and destroy-the-energy-core scene that will leave you wondering who ripped off who. The special effects are actually pretty good. When destroying the huge enemy space battleship at the end of the movie, they take the 10-or 12-foot model, douse it with gasoline, and set the thing on fire, and it looks great. Earlier in the film an asteroid belt scene is shot not by costly and then-ineffectual bluescreen, but by making thousands of model asteroids and having the ship (and the camera) weave in and out amongst them. There are exploding planets, space cruisers that fire giant missiles from their noses, anachronistic space-going sailing ships, and enough other flashy stuff to entertain the 7-year olds in the audience (namely me). I swear, there aren't five minutes in this movie that don't feature a laser gunfight, space combat, silver-painted aliens, or explosions.

Sonny Chiba, voted the Japanese most likely to kick your ass, plays the deposed rightful Govannis ruler, and his martial arts skill is immediately evident as he proceeds to wipe out half the Govannis base by himself during the climactic final battle. Sure, there are glowing special effects all over the place to try and compete with STAR WARS' lightsabers, but for honest-to-God swordfighting action, this movie can't be beat. Oh, and it was also directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who directed THE GREEN SLIME in 1969 and would go on to helm BATTLE ROYALE in 2000. Go Kinji!!

Toei would go on to make a TV series out of MESSAGE FROM SPACE, retaining all the models and the name "Govannis" but dumping everything else in favor of POWER RANGERS-style martial arts action and a talking gorilla sidekick. Yeah, a talking gorilla. This was around the same time they made their SPIDERMAN TV show in which Spiderman got a giant robot and a car with machine guns on it. No kidding.

THE WAR IN SPACE, on the other hand, is a tiresome and lackluster Toho production that can't decide whether it wants to rip off STAR WARS, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, or its own precursor ATRAGON (a.k.a. Kaitei Gunkan, or Undersea Battleship). Here's the plot: evil alien light fixtures bombard the Earth as shown in special effects scenes lifted from other Toho monster movies. The Earth retaliates with its secret super space battleship, the Gohten, which resembles a battleship with fancy crap stuck all over it (like the Yamato) and a big drill in the nose (like the Atragon).

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Our multinational (OK, one Caucasian) crew takes off to destroy the alien base on Venus. Along the way they launch space fighters out of an arrangement that resembles nothing more than the cylinder out of a .357 Magnum revolver. The Captain's daughter (played by cute Japanese model Yuko Asano) is captured, taken to Venus, and made to dress slutty, so before they can destroy the base, a special team of hand-picked commandos infiltrates the base, rescues the daughter from the lamest Chewbacca ripoff ever, and escapes just in time for the Captain to activate the drill in the prow of the ship and send it right into the enemy.

This destroys the entire planet Venus.

In its defense, WAR IN SPACE manages to be faintly amusing whenever the alien (you only see one) shows up. Hehas green skin, is dressed in Roman garb, and is dubbed with incredibly incoherent dialog. The effects scenes are adequate when they're not stock footage, and the scene with the axe-wielding, horned Wookiee reject is priceless. However, the exciting parts are seperated by long stretches of attempted storyline involving really boring subplots, and the movie itself is such a obviously slapped-together pastiche of other, vastly superior SF films that viewing becomes a challenge rather than a pleasure. Even the dubbed-in voices seem bored with the whole thing (as perhaps they were). After this disaster, Toho wouldn't make another SF movie for seven years. It's one of the few films I'm glad never made it to American theaters.

Discotek Media recently released a DVD version of WAR IN SPACE that looks great. Unfortunately you can't shine crap. Movie still stinks on ice.

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But enough about that turkey. MESSAGE FROM SPACE has yet to be officially released on home video over here, so your best bet is to catch it on TNT (they're running the uncut version from time to time) or shell out for the letterboxed Japanese DVD. Even though at first glance it's just another STAR WARS ripoff, I think everybody will agree that, ripoff or not, it's one darned entertaining film.

Dave Merrill


(this article first appeared in the Star Wars fanzine BLUE HARVEST and thereafter at the fine website ANIME JUMP.)

artworks: 1998-2006

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