A Memory of Locustland

Published May 10, 2021

First Things

Life is strange. Allow me to elaborate.

The author Nathaniel West, a friend of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other luminaries of the word, died in a 1940 car crash when he blew through a California stop sign. He was 37. But before checking out, he wrote one of the great, if too often overlooked, classics of American literature: The Day of the Locust (1939).

The story is simple. The novel’s hero, Tod Hackett, is a gifted young Yale graduate; a painter with a love for the Great Masters. While planning his own masterpiece, The Burning of Los Angeles, he ends up working as a set designer at a Hollywood studio. What he finds there, circling the dwarf star of Big Screen success like a planet of grasping egos, is a world of artifice, fame junkies, movie wannabes, failed dreams, and scamsters—all slowly baking to a pleasant tan under alien palms and a technicolor sun. The results are boredom, frustration, and ultimately violence. Los Angeles, he discovers, was built on a desert, in more ways than one.

I first read West in high school. He was a brilliant, darkly ironic wordsmith; a talented screenwriter as well as a novelist. He whetted my early appetite for the silver screen and became the tractor beam for my own young pilgrimage to the left coast. But having eventually grown up, I forgot his novel for decades until, a few years ago, I stumbled across videos of Quentin Tarantino on YouTube.

I’ve always seen Tarantino as an eccentric genius. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are among my favorite films. So, quite reasonably, I’ve always had an interest in searching out the films that served as his Muse. As it happens, one of those inspiring films—he said this on late night television, then in a New York Times Sunday magazine profile, and elsewhere—is a girl-gang B-movie from 1975 called Switchblade Sisters. He admires this film so sincerely that he secured the rights to re-release it in the 1990s. A quick YouTube search for “Quentin Tarantino Switchblade Sisters” brings the connoisseur to multiple videos of the artist himself, reading enthusiastically from the screenplay. In a related video he situates the film’s female gang lieutenant, “Patch,” in the great tradition of Othello.

I find this odd. It’s odd because Switchblade Sisters is one of the most idiotic and embarrassing movies ever made. I should know. I wrote it. And therein lies a tale.

Here’s the scenario. It’s 1974. I’m 26, with a wife, an eight-month-old baby, three part-time jobs, and a beat-up VW bug. I go to a job interview with the producer of The Jezebels—later retitled, far more elegantly, as Switchblade Sisters. The producer is John Prizer, a Harvard grad whose family came over on the Mayflower 300+ years ago. He’s also the former flame of S. K., my agent—which is how I got the interview. A kind and keenly astute woman, S. K. is a Bennington College grad and the trophy wife of another, major (and discreetly gay) producer. John shows up in a buckskin suit. We exchange some pleasantries. On his desk is the cardboard mock-up of a movie poster with exploding cars, girls spraying automatic weapons, and a panicked black cop shouting, “They’re out of control!” I say, “That looks interesting. What’s the storyline?” He says, “How should I know? That’s your job.”

Thus begins a long and curious friendship. Our mandate is to produce a financially successful, R-rated—but note well: the overseas market includes conservative Muslim countries—girl-gang exploitation film. A good story would help too. John and I agree to create a high-quality, low-budget version of A Clockwork Orange under the guise of a girl-gang exploitation movie. What we actually develop is a low-budget, girl-gang exploitation film without the irritating baggage of a plausible and intelligent plot, dialogue, or characters. But I’m a fast and cooperative writer, so Jack Hill, the director, invites me to sit in on the daily set as the film is shot.

This is a privilege. On the first day, the actresses lavish me with attention. They’re lovely young women, and obviously I’ve chosen a wise career path. By the second day, they’ve figured out that I’m just the writer, and I sit, in arctic isolation, as they fawn and bubble around the director. More indignity awaits. At the film’s final screening for the support crew—that special moment, rich in exquisite catcalls and derision for the robotic performances on the screen—the grips and gaffers take their revenge on the “creatives.” I use the term loosely.

None of this makes much difference, though, at least in the short run, because exploitation-film profits of the time rely on overseas sales. And while some Islamic audiences in the 1970s might excuse females toting guns, all have problems with females in abbreviated clothing. Switchblade Sisters is a disappointing cash cow—until disinterred and resurrected years later, replete with a glistening new premiere, by the demigod Tarantino.

So much for the past of forty-six years ago.

Life after Switchblade Sisters and the road therefrom is a story for another time. I do need, though, to offer some belated thanks to Mr. Tarantino for the film’s eventual re-release. It brought me an additional $500 in royalties; periodic cackling from my kids; and a boatload of delighted needling from priest and lay friends, including a certain archbishop for whom I once worked.

Like I said, life is strange—as Nathaniel West clearly learned and brilliantly shared before he blew through that fatal stop sign. My own life has been far more pedestrian, but also happier and longer. Which simply proves that God’s mercy endures forever. And so, evidently, does his sense of humor.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In a previous life, he was a Los Angeles story editor and screenwriter, and a fellow of the American Film Institute’s Conservatory for Advanced Film Studies.

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