The Cult Club: Six-String Samurai (1998)
4:00 PM on 01.11.2013 // Hubert Vigilla@HubertVigilla
[The Cult Club is where Flixist's writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
Toward the end of high school there were a couple movies that were my litmus test movies. (I think the end of high school and the early part of college are the last times that you can have these sorts of things and take them seriously, at least without seeming unnecessarily stand-offish.) Most of them were horror movies and cult films, and one of the musts was Six-String Samurai, one of the ginchiest movies ever made.
Watching it again is like rediscovering some old LP in a record store or finding forgotten singles on some terrestrial radio oldies station. This is a lean three-minute pop song that wastes no time: within its first minute or so, we are neck deep in its samurai/Soviet/surf rock mayhem. Here's a track played a lot, lauded in its time, then cast aside with all the other artifacts of the past. It's a movie ostensibly about an alternate 1950s America, but it's also a movie so 1990s that there was a Rob Liefeld comic for it, and so wild with its ideas it feels mint more than 10 years later.
That might be the best thing said about the post-apocalyptic nuttiness of Six-String Samurai: it's part time capsule, part time machine, and all cool.
There is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.
-- Douglas Sirk
Douglas Sirk was referring to melodrama when he said that, but I think the same holds true for cult movies, and even a lot of postmodern art and writing. Whether it's the childlike anarchy of Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (Hausu) or the surreal Mexico City of the mind in Alejandro Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre, the crazy elements are essential to the art of the cult movie -- sometimes the cult movie is an argument for the art of craziness. So many cult films are set apart by their willingness to do what many other films are unable or unwilling to do, and in this excess and exploitation is a kind of ecstasy. In Six-String Samurai, it's all about bringing things together into sort of Mulligan stew version of alternative history. (A Mulligan stew is something hobos used to make, basically throwing whatever they could into the pot for flavor: beans, chicken, vegetables, boots. It's a crazy concoction, like the childhood potions I used to make out of whatever was in the refrigerator.)
Alternate history stories ask an essential question, and I think there are two in Six-String Samurai. The first: what if the Soviet Union used nukes on the United States in the late 1950s? The second: what if Buddy Holly didn't die with The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens and then became a supreme stoic badass in the style of Ogami Itto and Mad Max? Though it's never explicitly stated this is Buddy Holly we're watching in the wastelands of America, the glasses and the clothes heavily imply it. For a long time I wondered where his Stratocaster went since he's carrying a semi-hollow in the wasteland. Now I just assume he traded in his Strat for a katana after the bomb fell because it would be more useful; the hollow body he must have taken from the bucko who broke his glasses.
In the world of Six-String Samurai, the last bit of proper civilization is Las Vegas, renamed Lost Vegas after the nuke. Elvis, that former King of Rock and Roll, has died and left the throne empty. Buddy (Jeffrey Falcon) is en route to Vegas to claim his destiny, but he winds up having to care for a recently orphaned boy simply known as The Kid (Justin McGuire). The Kid is mostly inarticulate, which I assume is partly out of PTSD from seeing his parents killed and partly out of affectation since it's a kooky conceit. On Buddy's trail is Death himself, less like Bengt Ekerot's Grim Reaper from The Seventh Seal and more like Slash from GNR. I wonder if Death's already taken out Valens and The Bopper; I hope Jerry Lee Lewis gave that son of a bitch hell; I dream that Roy Orbison fought like Zatoichi until the bitter end.
Written and directed by Lance Mungia, Six-String Samurai is a hodgepodge of Americana merged with post-apocalyptic ideas. You have a bit of narration provided by Wolfman Jack (or at least someone who sounds a lot like him), there are weirdos in astronaut suits, a cannibalistic nuclear family, the coonskin cap is a holdover from the Davy Crockett craze, there are bowling team buddies who no one messes with. But on top of these quintessentially American things are little touches of internationalism that were en vogue for cineastes who came of age in the 80s and 90s, the era of home video, cable movie shows, rising interest in cult entertainment, niche film clubs, etc. There's obviously a lot owed to Lone Wolf and Cub and the Mad Max movies, but the added flair comes from the surf rock soundtrack by The Red Elvises -- think Dick Dale hanging ten on the Volga -- and the martial arts choreography by Falcon himself. Falcon had played bit parts in Hong Kong movies (most notably some films with Cynthia Rothrock), and Buddy's fights are done with the style of a Hong Kong flick of that decade.
This blend of everything is an example of that time capsule and time machine aspect to Six String-Samurai. This is the epitome of the 1950s frozen in a state of peachy keen fashion and Cleaver family values following the explosion of a bomb, but it's also tying in heavy metal, a music genre that wouldn't have reached its fetal state without the 1960s. There's a meta level to all this as well since the movie is so much an object of its decade while reflecting a warped version of decades past: Six-String Samurai has all the flash of 90s indie filmmaking (think Robert Rodriguez) as well as the referentialism (think Quentin Tarantino, who would make his own Mulligan stew with Kill Bill).
In a sense, post-apocalyptic films are all a little bit fantastical in a strange way even if they technically have science fiction roots. Each story opens with an implicit, "Once upon a time after the world ended..." It sounds like a post-apocalypic Spaghetti western waiting to be made. We're asked to fix a time given the surviving artifacts and bits of culture that we're shown, but we're also asked that the storytellers be given some wiggle room since they're using whatever pieces of culture they want to present a world that comes after the one we know.
Maybe in addition to being time machines and time capsules, post-apocalyptic movies are like assemblage works of art: you take a bunch of junk and refuse and put them together in an interesting way, like Robert Rauscheberg or a Joseph Cornell. (Mulligan stew at MoMA.) In this case, the Cornell box contains Buddy Holly, samurais, and loads of visual style to keep things moving. Or, given the crazed, childlike quality of the storytelling, maybe it's like destroying the world and peopling it with your favorite action figures. Everything about Six-String Samurai feels like a hyperactive kid's weekend spent in the sandbox.
(I still think if they ever made a sequel or spiritual sequel to Six-String Samurai, it would have to star the noisy Japanese punk band Guitar Wolf; it would also have to be a post-apocalyptic western as part of some American/Japanese cult movie exchange program. Maybe they can call it Once Upon a Time After the World Ended.)
But in addition to the action and the bizarre assemblage of 1950s stuff and 1990s stuff -- the movie seems like it'd be king of the Island of Misfit Toys if it was an action figure -- what makes Six-String Samurai so enjoyable is the handful of quotable lines, which have needled their way into my brain since I first watched the movie on VHS. Knowing the context or not, there's just something hilarious about the line, "Only one man can kill this many Russians"; ditto the flatout goofiness of, "Nice tuxedo. Nice tuxedo to die in!" My own personal favorite:
Mesh-Head: If I were you, I would run.
Buddy: If you were me, you'd be good-lookin'.
That's as smooth as the action on Buddy's semi-hollow. Ever since seeing Six-String Samurai, I've been waiting for a moment to say that line. It hasn't happened yet.
Six String-Samurai seemed forgotten for so long even though there's so much craziness that makes it memorable. It was a festival darling of the 1990s, a peculiar indie oddity in a decade full of them, but for a while it felt like I was the only person I knew who saw it, dug it, and pushed it on friends. (When I was in college, I once heard a film studies professor champion the movie after class. In that warped way that litmus test movies work, this incident made her seem 20 times hotter even though she was really attractive to begin with.) I was happy to hear about the nod to the film in Fallout: New Vegas, that's damn snappy, but I wasn't all too pleased with the less-than-happy fate of Mungia's and Falcon's film careers. Six-String Samurai had a budget of $2 million, and despite the buzz it got from lots of online reviews, the movie was a total bomb at the box office.
Mungia has only one other feature to his name: the 2005 direct-to-video sequel The Crow: Wicked Prayer. I haven't watched it, but I was contemplating seeing it prior to writing this piece. I just ran out of time, unfortunately. Maybe it's for the best given its reception. The Crow: Wicked Prayer currently holds a 2.8 on IMDb, and I doubt it's done with the same goofy glee as Six-String Samurai. For Falcon, Six-String Samurai was his final film credit. Accounts online say he started living in China after the film, though his last known whereabouts as of 2005 was working at an airport in Los Angeles.
It's a little sad what happens after the end of the world, at least in actual history. In an alternate history of our world, I'd like to imagine Mungia got to do a few more crazed bits of assemblage, and Falcon got to be a decent cult star. But in actual history, I think they can both be legitimately happy, even with the box office drubbing. Six-String Samurai still has its devotees; it survived the box office apocalypse. Like Hunter Thompson said of Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (another bomb):
There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.
That's my Buddy.
Hail! Hail! Rock and roll!
Next Month... You boys like Mexico?! That's where Nick Valdez is taking you for El Mariachi (1992).
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING AT THE CULT CLUB
December: The Warriors (1979)
November: Funky Forest: First Contact (2005)
October: Casino Royale (1967)
September: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
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