The films of Maximo T. Bird
It makes sense to take a quick diversion here into the films of Maximo T. Bird – that is to say, the pseudonym of Donald Jackson. As the 90’s began, Jackson, disillusioned from his experiences at Roger Corman’s New World pictures had exited the studio system completely, exclusively raising money and shooting independently. It would be during this time that he would eventually take on “Zen Filmmaking” as his standard. However, before he’d refocus on Sci-Fi fantasy zen films he found himself mired in exploitation.
While quite smutty, I struggle with what exactly to call these films. Are they porn? Jackson is certainly using porn actresses. During the production of “Guns of El Chupacabra” Don came up with the idea of going to the major adult film casting agency in L.A., where he was sure he’d easily be able to get some female talent who were willing to work in the nude. As there was no on-screen sex involved in that film, something that these girls did for a living, he was certain this would be a far easier sell. Jackson paid the two-hundred dollar casting fee, looked through their books, chose some girls, and got their numbers. He’d be making good use of that list of phone numbers for the rest of his career to provide ample nudity and the occasional sex scene for his films.
The thing is, is that enough to make it qualify for Porn? Would you call for instance, Paul Verhoven’s “Showgirls” porn? It also has copious amounts of nudity and sex scenes FAR more graphic (enough to get them slapped with a “NC-17” rating rather than a “R”) than anything we ever got from Jackson. But it also has more story and intent than a lot of these halfhearted attempts by Jackson under the Bird name. The main sort of titillation seems to come from girls walking around and various stages of undress and the vacuous looks of pleasure on their faces.
Many of them feel almost as if someone hired Jackson to make a porn film, and he set out to do as poor job of it as possible (and let’s face it. It’s HARD to screw up porn). It makes me think of Ed Wood’s later films, things like Orgy of the Dead, where the subject matter is definitely meant to be pornographic, but the filmmaker still clings to this fantasy of making real films and injecting some sort of genre plot. This isn’t like something from say, Jim Wynorski – who, when he makes porn… He lets you KNOW it’s porn. These films seem to be trying very hard to straddle the fence between those two worlds; an uncomfortable position to say the least, especially in an animal print thong.
The other thing is, I can’t understand exactly to whom this was marketed. It’s too racy and amateur from mainstream video stores, but not racy enough for an adult bookstore. It would’ve been perfectly normal to see this in one of the grindhouses of the 70s and 80s. “The Devil’s Pet” for instance was released in 1994, the year Rudy Giuliani was elected so it may have made it in as a last gasp before he cleaned up New York. A great deal of Jackson’s work would also end up overseas. He was a regular at The American Film Market, which would attract buyers from all over the world. Also it was still in the thick of late-night Cinemax, and when other filmmakers like Jim Wynorski would make this kind of stuff, that’s where it would end up.
And this is where I’m conflicted. We don’t review or promote porn here. But this is still a pretty integral illustration of Jackson as a filmmaker. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pick four of these movies that best illustrate the Bird films, and basically give you some descriptions so hopefully you can know enough to avoid them. Let’s start with “It’s Showtime.”
For a moment “It’s Showtime” feels like a return to Donald Jackson’s original documentary roots. Actually, a straight documentary would have been a much better film. Interesting that in this case he uses the bird pseudonym as a film editor, but his real name appears as a director. It’s one of those tricks to pad the crew list and make it look like more people actually worked on this movie than actually did. What’s notable though that it foreshadows the way he’d soon start using it as a pseudonym to fully separate his smut work from the family films he’d start trying to push around this same time.
The movie starts off with a bunch of talking head clips of different strippers, describing what it’s like to work in the industry before heading into the club itself to show the atmosphere. The documentary opening may have been a mistake though. The film itself is a traditional narrative and this highlights how staged it is. We’ve got a familiar face in Robert Z’Dar behind the bar. He’s not around for long though (likely only worked one day on this one) after propositioning one of the dancers to “get ahead “. That proposition gets him fired by the manager/den mom, but as he leaves He threatens them – “I’ll be back” (He makes up on this promise a few minutes later in the alleyway with a knife)
In the meantime, the strippers discuss your lives and one falls on stage, twisting her ankle. Backstage, they examined her heels and find that one has been damaged… Sabotaged! We also
the Mafia type owners who are pigs of course, trying to get favors from the girls. For about ninety seconds it becomes a study of who will and who won’t. It almost wants to be a cautionary tale, but like a kid with ADHD the movie immediately loses focus and goes back to more scenes of the dancers. The monotony of random dancing is broken up when the partner of one of the dancers shows up and goes nuts. This lasts for about three minutes before heading back to dancing and random dialogue. We then get a quickie love affair for the manager that’s made up of a three minute sex scene then two more minutes of the happy couple riding rapturously on horseback. Before it’s time to jump scenes again.
A poolside birthday party is up next, where the girls dance like strippers even when not at work. Another bartender is fired with a cake to the face. Finally we hit the Halloween party at the club. The cops come in, shut it down and arrest the owner so we have some semblance of plot and closure.
Ultimately this seems to want to be just a slice of life – a week in the life of a strip club. Imagine if “Showgirls” had no plot and never got out of that first strip club? That’s what this film is. There are no character arcs, no pathos, no relationships, no goals… Just ordinary life, but in this seedy setting with its almost cartoonish owners and hapless den mother/manager. If you were to pull all of the dancing inserts, the run time would likely drop by half.
On to the next one. “Queen of the Lost Island” also goes by the name “The Devil’s Pet”. Like “It’s Showtime”, the camerawork actually looks decent despite the fact that the sound quality is muddy. We also get the occasional directors trademark where the corners of the screen are periodically cut off from not removing the lens cap properly. It begins with a man dreaming of topless cavewoman and Robert Z’Dar.
Reporters hound him outside a Beverly Hills hotel, asking about people who died on the mysterious island. It seems he is a sole survivor of a trip, and there to tell his story to a magazine writer.
Flash back to Z’Dar, doing a photo shoot in the woods (I can’t help but notice how small the camera is by the way – no special lenses, just a kind of average to high and snapshot camera) . They make an appointment to head to the island for the next shoot. While there, the model starts to have flashes of sinister natives (Possibly a goddess or the spirit of the island, depending on which source you go with). She and her boyfriend find a mysterious bottle filled with a drug that triggers off a series of dire foreshadowing quick cuts. The drug seems addictive though, and inflames passions. They leave the bottle behind where it turns Julie Strain into a topless, native, wild woman. We’ll see quite a bit of her wandering and swinging her sword as filler inserts, designed to stretch this to feature length.
We cut back to our main character, talking about moving onto his next job – shooting girls by the pool. The girls fall into the typical stereotypes, the brain, the slut, and the nice girl. A phone call comes in, and the photographer is off to the island with the three girls. Their arrival is observed by the previous visitors to the island, now mentally changed by the bottled drug.
More topless sword swinging.
The photographer begins work with one of the models (He’s got the same plain camera as Z’Dar), while the other two are discovered by the survivors on the island. Sword girl begins a ritual that seems to be felt by the other survivors. It also seems to summon other native girls on the island to come and chase our helpless models. Our good girl model is forced to drink the strange elixir and everything that entails.
Jackson also resorted to another one of his trademarks, when in doubt go for the quick cuts. The final 15 minutes are almost all quick flashes from scene to image to seeing to image. He even manages a twist ending of sorts. It’s the sort of things that don’t make it feel like it wants to be more than just smut. Indeed, it’s listed on IMDb a “horror” rather than “adult” or even just “independent”. Whatever it is, this film is garbage and even at seventy five minutes this is too long. I watched this on 1.4x speed, and updated that to full double time for the last twenty minutes. Even reduced to 47 minutes it’s too long. I’m a little surprised it didn’t end Jackson’s career. It didn’t though and it moves us on to “Big Sister 2000”.
With Maximo T. Bird and Julie Strain in the credits, I’ve already got a pretty good idea what Big Sister 2000 is going to be like. If that weren’t enough, then opening with a girl in a cage pretty much seals the deal. She is guarded by a man clad in black and decked out in hockey armor, a bandanna, and a top hat. He has a katana. Very much a Donald Jackson-looking character. She escapes and makes a run for it, and the men pursue her. The credits end and we switch to A girl at the shrinks office. He thinks she’s delusional, but she attempts to convince him that what she believes is real, and that there’s a threat “out there”.
Jackson is filming in his office again, and we’re back to the old standard of hanging up curtains to create different sets. There is a fine visual gag in the bedroom set though, a number of Jacksons films such as Frogtown, Kill Kill Overkill, and a copy of “the anarchists joke book”. If anything, the movie is worth it just for that!
A girl is kidnapped from her bed and taken to a dark location where she collapses and wakes up in a prison with three other women.
She’s brought to the theater of pain to be interrogated about her sex life. The questions are interspersed by the torment of other scantily clad prisoners.
Around the half hour mark she is visited by a ghost – the spirit of someone who came to this prison and never left. The ghost reassures her there is a way to escape but only if she tells them nothing. The interrogator can only be defeated if she doesn’t break her (The interrogator has superiors as well who will punish her for failure). We see all of this play out minutes after the ghost’s warning – the interrogator lies, fails and is dragged off by another torturer. Then it’s back to the quick cuts to distract us while the film tries to think of a new direction for the plot.
It’s around this halfway point that the film starts to change, shifting from a lesbian dominatrix fantasy to something more philosophical,l with the ghost making repeated visits and the girls considering the ramifications of being held prisoner. She’s given a new interrogator. this time it’s a man who seems more serious about the job and is looking for a book from her collection. She uses interrogators and weaknesses against him to escape.
Using newly acquired guns, they attempt to navigate the surrounding junkyard (a standard Jackson outdoor set) fleeing armed guards, bullets, and the betrayal on one of their own according to the ghost’s prophecy. Our heroine escapes alone, with the ghosts benediction of “Be strong, go on the light”.
Finally, we discover her boyfriend is one of them and he explains what it’s all about – the men are searching for the anarchists jokebook because if people start making fun of the government, it will do what the government tells them to do! She shoots him and makes good her escape. This brings us back to the beginning where she is telling the shrink about the secret prisons. The problem is, the psychiatrist is in on it too and now, it’s time to escape again.
The weird thing about this is that despite all the garbage in this film, there really is an interesting story here. It almost feels as if Jackson had enough material for half a movie and needed an extra 40 minutes of filler – this is where the smut comes in. It’s a little disappointing, because it feels like he could’ve developed this into something bigger, better, if he’d taken some time to craft a good script. A good scriptwriter can overcome the shortcomings of the meagre cast. Instead, it looks like Jackson charged in with a story and half a script, leveraging his connections with various porn stars to create something quick, rather than taking time to create something good. It’s a problem we’d see time and again from Jackson. Scott Shaw once observed “He had great creative ideas but he couldn’t get anything done.” Don always needed someone to collaborate with, someone who could push him and keep him moving instead of just meandering off task. It’s why I think he tended to produce so much better work under the studio system. However, instead of heading back to the studios, Jackson would move either farther away from them.