Look past its abrasive surface—maybe not easy for everyone, since it’s filled with gruesome violence, graphic sexuality, child-killing (and subsequent cannibalism), castration, onscreen defecation, snot-play, flatulence, and the use of a toothbrush to clean soiled underwear, among other atrocities—and Bride of Frank is a remarkable document of working-class expression. Shot deep in the industrial bowels of the Ironbound, it’s a direct manifestation of workplace boredom at a trucking warehouse, made on a zero budget and sometimes on the clock, making it something of a piece of resistance to the capitalist domination of our bodies and time, albeit probably not in the exact form Marcuse was hoping for back in the day when transformative politics actually seemed possible.
Or maybe Marcuse would’ve loved it; what do I know? In any case, it’s the shock value that acts as the film’s calling card, upping the ante on 1980s and early 90s splatter/gore horror cinema by embracing a literalism in which every seemingly hyperbolic statement is graphically enacted before us. “I’m gonna rip off your head and shit down your throat,” I’m gonna skullfuck you”: generally figurative language, but not here.
In the history of grindhouse and exploitation film, such crassness very often collapses into (or is at least undergirded by) misogyny, and Bride of Frank is no exception; to the extent that it has a narrative, it’s about Frank, a homeless man living in a warehouse, seeking female companionship (“I want tits” is his, uh, metonymic way of describing his agenda, though given the rampant dismemberment in the film, maybe it’s not metonymy at all), with most of the encounters ending in the violent deaths of his would-be suitors.
But without denying the film’s fundamental misogyny, it would be reductive to limit its freewheeling perversity to just that; an encounter with a tough-talking neighborhood enforcer who interrupts Frank’s pee-break in an alley, after all, ends with Frank returning to his truck with a severed phallus in his mouth (which is never really explained, just tossed on the street to better be run over by the truck). Likewise, scenes with a transgender sex worker and a 300-pound woman not only end poorly for the women, but invite readings of transphobia and fat-shaming. At the same time, however, the characters can’t be contained by a flat reading that would deny them their agency; the prostitute exhibits some serious fierceness before Frank dispatches her, and the larger bodied woman takes real pleasure in her own body during an extended striptease. The film may or may not solicit derisive audience laughter, but she has her own agenda, and owns her scene, gloriously.
Further, everyone in this film is deeply degenerate, so there’s a certain leveling that goes on. The men at the warehouse have a rough camaraderie based almost entirely on discussions of their purportedly enormous dicks and threats/promises to fuck one another. The scenes of their banter are a little like Andy Milligan shooting a Cassavetes adaptation, and charming in their own corrosive way; the men, after all, collectively rescued Frank from the streets and gave him a home in the warehouse (even buying him a set of dentures), where he performs menial tasks to earn his keep. This seems to be essentially nonfiction, based on the enlightening if cough-filled DVD commentary track from filmmaker Steve Ballot (who worked as a dispatcher in the warehouse office), star Frank Meyer, and technical adviser Brent Butterworth, and while there are undeniably Grey Gardens/Wesley Willis-style questions about the exploitation of a star whose life experiences have left him so frazzled that he has difficulty speaking in full sentences, Butterworth insists on an interesting IMDB comment that Frank had a good time.
I’m reminded of Jane Ward’s new book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, although the warehouse workers are a multiracial group, and I also think of Anna Breckon’s thoughtful recent take on the “erotic politics of disgust” in Pink Flamingos (an obvious inspiration here), in which “bonds born of disgust enable alternative social arrangements” to those based on liberal foundations of empathy. These aren’t just empty theoretical concerns, either—for a powerful recent critique of the limits of empathy as a tool of political mobilization in light of the police murder of Sam DuBose, read Hari Ziyad’s great piece at Black Girl Dangerous. The “disgust-based socialities” that Breckon writes about are perhaps not what Ziyad is calling for, but they do represent an alternative to the prurient voyeurism in which
Relying on empathy means black people faced with horrific levels of police brutality must make white people “feel our pain.” It forces us to stream the bodies of our dead sons and daughters on a loop. It requires there to be dead sons and daughters in the first place. It always demands more spectacles of pain.
Bride of Frank is deeply problematic on many levels, and probably not a great basis for new modes of radical social organization, but it does make use of disgust in ways that differ from the modes Breckon and Ziyad critique. In their homosocial world of sexist class consciousness, these men do carve out a certain sphere of sweetness and intimacy, secured always by the violence of their rhetoric. They even dance at Frank’s birthday party; it’s cute, even if it ends in a murder.
It also offers, to return to the original point, a vivid and utterly unique vision of Newark from its absolute ass-end, where the Passaic River swoops down to curb the industrial sprawl of the eastern Ironbound, and all things end in a tangle of highways and a bridge to Jersey City. Re-edit the film to strip away the Grand Guignol frills, and you get this visual essay on blue-collar Newark life in the mid-1990s:
As a ridiculous postscript of sorts, I attempted to see how things had changed in Bride of Frank‘s neighborhood; while I thought I had figured out where the film was shot, the precision of my geography was slightly off, and I couldn’t find the actual warehouse (if it still exists). But this is clearly the right neighborhood, and 2015 looks a lot like 1996, as far as I can tell.
Bride of Frank may not rank in mosts canons of neorealist cinema, but as probably the only film to take place in Newark’s industrial wasteland, it certainly deserves a place in the Newark film canon. It’s probably not for everyone (I didn’t even write about the muffled sound, and camcorder-shot visuals are perhaps an acquired taste), but for that evening when you’re jonesing for a disgusting film shot in a Newark warehouse, it may be the only choice!