9.16.2011

The psychotronic diaries: “How much did you and your wife tell your daughter about the facts of life?”



Perhaps more so than with mainstream films, it’s the anachronisms—the mistakes, the discontinuities, the contradictions—that become most interesting and most telling about psychotronia.  Take schlock-master Jerry Gross’ Teenage Mother (1967), which apparently spent years on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit.  It obviously was geared toward the newly, um, fertile teen market kicked off by Sam Arkoff’s AIP beach movies in the early ’60s.  But the obviousness ends there, because just about everything else in Teenage Mother seems counterintuitive.   

Firstly, there are two competing, loosely related plots going on, one of which follows Arlene (Arlene Sue Farber), a somewhat doltish, big-haired teeny-bopper who tells her nice-guy boyfriend she’s pregnant in the hopes that he’ll marry her.  The other concerns Miss Peterson, who ruffles feathers when she tries to teach sex ed to the local high-schoolers.  When Arlene’s father discovers that she’s “pregnant,” he holds an impromptu town meeting (in what looks like the high school gym, decorated for a dance that the film never mentions; see below) blaming Miss Peterson for preaching promiscuity.  Miss Peterson insists that it’s the parents themselves who are to blame for not properly educating their sons and daughters.  A graphic, somewhat nauseating (and utterly uninformative) “educational” film about birthing forceps is shown.  Arlene reveals that she’s not really pregnant, chastened (so to speak) by having been almost gang-raped by the school punks.  Everybody goes home happy.

Let’s start with the misleading title.  This is a movie called Teenage Mother in which no teen pregnancy occurs (in spite of the image on the poster depicting a petulant Arlene, carrying what could be a set of triplets under a bulging sweater).  The film, which seems to be a cautionary tale about premarital sex (“this could happen to you!”) is, confusingly, one in which the sex between Arlene and her boyfriend causes no negative consequences—other than those she invents.  The infamous “education film” inserted into the final reel is worthy of article-length theorization.  Why is it here?  Why does Miss Peterson show it?  That it serves no real educational purpose seems clear—but could anyone really have been titillated by shots of metal forceps pulling an infant out of a swollen pudendum?  In the end, we’re neither convinced that it has educational value nor that it functions as pornography.  It’s just there, in all its sad, clinical blankness.  (It’s no Window Water Baby Moving, that’s for sure.) 

Teenage Mother is a good example of the psychotronic film as mélange of related but incoherently juxtaposed elements.  It’s a film that doesn’t know or care what it wants to “say” (if anything) about teen sex, so it blithely offers up a jumble of sex-related incidents, scenarios, and images—some gratuitous, some sensationalistic, some apparently earnest—and tries to cobble together meaning out of them at the last minute.  But it’s this messiness that I find most compelling about psychotronic film, because the beauty and pleasure of psychotronic films lie, I think, precisely in their most problematic places.    


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