The Gross-Out Prophet
Underground filmmaker Joe Christ spreads his word in Knoxville.
By Mike Gibson
MAY 26, 1998: Ensconced in a fortress-like home in a woodsy corner of East Knox County, Minnie T Productions is hardly your average production facility. But then this afternoon's client, New York underground filmmaker Joe Christ, is hardly your average Joe.
The gutter visionary behind such tabloid-culture video classics as Speed Freaks With Guns and Sex Blood and Mutilation, the 40-ish blond punk-rocker-cum-gross-out-auteur is hunched over a computer terminal in a cluttered back room, editing scenes from Amy Strangled a Small Childhis latest trash epic, a film shot entirely in Knoxville. (Amy debuted at the Old City's Neptune club on April 30.)
The movie, which stars Christ and Jonesboro native Amanda James, relates the offbeat (to say the least) tale of a young woman who concocts a false repressed memory flashbackof killing a childhood playmatewhile taking part in a friend's film-school graduation project. The production is typically (Joe) Christ-like, both in its use of guerrilla filmmaking tactics (the $1,500 movie was shot in just over a week, much of it in Fort Sanders and on the streets of downtown Knoxville) and in its attention to sordid detail.
"There's basically a healthy dose of gratuitous grossness," Christ says, the gleeful smile of a naughty child breaking across his face. "We discovered in the course of making the movie that Campbell's Split Pea Soup makes for very convincing fake vomit."
For better or worse, Christ plans to make Knoxville the headquarters for his future moviemaking endeavors; his tour manager, Mandy Pack, is a Knoxvillian, while several of his crew members hail from neighboring cities. "It ended up being easy, using Knoxville as the set and location because of the availability of my crew," he says. "And the rates I can get on quality studio facilities are far better than anything I could get in the Northeast. New York is just too expensive."
Over the past decade, Christ has built a singularly strange oeuvre, a series of often disturbingly realistic short filmsdealing with everything from serial killers to self-mutilationthat have garnered the native Philadelphian a cultish following in the grimy back alleys of American cinema. And although some would argue that Christ is really a false prophetthat his notoriety has more to do with self-promotion than freak-set populism, and that his films are more audacious than artistichis odd celebrity can be no more easily overlooked than one of the gruesome on-screen spectacles that have made his movies the stuff of minor cinematic legend.
His sometimes grisly predilections notwithstanding, Christ in person is, of all things, a pretty nice guyunfailingly polite, with a soft, agreeably weathered face and perpetually earnest demeanor. Other than his ever-present all-black ensemble of T-shirt, leather cap, and jeans, the only readily visible concession to freakdom is the faded green snake tattoo crawling out of his shirt sleeve and winding around his left forearm.
Despite a relatively normal childhood, Christ says he never felt he belonged to the culture that surrounded him until one of his high school teachers took him to see John Waters' stomach-turning classic Pink Flamingoes. For the young Christthen known as Joe Linhartthe experience was nothing short of an epiphany.
"It literally changed my life," says Christ. "I had always had this appreciation for gratuitous grossness and twisted humor. My dad was a doctor, and one of my favorite things was to find choice medical textbook photos and show them to people. So I was always kind of an outcast, and when I saw that movie, it was like I had found my place."
Christ eventually migrated to Dallas, Texas, where he sang and played guitar in a string of punk bands, hard-core outfits with names like G-Spot and Healing Faith and Joe Christ and Bigger Than God. As time went on, his musical endeavors assumed an increasingly theatrical bent, an evolution that would eventually bleed (so to speak) into his first film project in 1988, Communion in Room 410, a 20-minute slice of mental illness captured on super-eight.
"I knew this 400-pound Goth chick named Mary who was into self-mutilation," says Christ. "The movie is basically me filming her while she cuts herself with razors and another woman drinks her blood. The movie really bugged a lot of people, and it got some attention. So I decided to ditch rock music and make movies. I could still make my own music for the soundtracks, and I could still tour. Only now I was showing my movies, and I didn't have the hassles of having a band."
Through relentless touring and the sheer gruesome force of his virulent imagination, Christ gradually gained underground notoriety with entirely self-produced low-budget epics like Acid Is Groovy Kill The Pigs (chronicling the violent, blotter-gobbling havoc wrought by a fictional band of Mansonist hippies), Speed Freaks With Guns (in which Christ plays a speed-crazed serial killer, a character drawn from real-life crank addicts), and the infamous Sex Blood and Mutilation (a documentary about the extremes of body modification which features, among other things, a man who has had his member amputated).
"I experienced some resistance at times, but it's lessened as time has passed," says Christ, addressing the brazenly offensive nature of much of his work. "It happened mostly in smaller cities, where I was visiting for the first time, and a very general audience would show up. I've had entire audiences walk out before. But by my third or fourth visit, I've always got a little following built up, a group of people who know what to expect."
Though Amy Strangled a Small Child would seem to be less patently shocking than his previous efforts"It doesn't have any on-screen violence, cursing, or nudity"Christ calls the film "my most disturbing and vile movie yet."
Besides its preoccupation in several scenes with excrement and bodily secretions, the film also has an implied date-rape and sports an ending with a decidedly unsettling twist. "What really puts the movie over the edge is Amanda," Christ says of his star. "The real disturbing part lies in this character, this really messed-up girl who also has these really gross personal habits. She really pulled off exactly what I had in my mental picture. The fact that her character came off so well, and that it doesn't occur to the audience until half-way through that my character has no redeeming qualitiesthat's what makes Amy so troubling."
For local viewers who can stomach the callous treatment of its subject matter, Amy Strangled A Small Child is, at the very least, enjoyable as an antic video romp through various imminently recognizable downtown landscapesJames sauntering down Cumberland Avenue and through the grid-like arteries of Fort Sanders; Christ tooling around the Old City in a sedan; the two principals slamming high-balls at the Neptune or wolfing down Vol burgers at Vic 'n' Bill's deli.
Christ plays the latter scene on the video monitor; blessed with few social graces, James' character attacks the deli specialty with carnivorous fervorbelching, snorting, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "She ate an entire Vol Burger in less than five minutes," Christ says with obvious pride.
Besides debuting Amy on another cross-country tour, Christ has a series of new projects pending, including Sex Blood and Mutilation 2, which will focus on female body modification, and the possible release of a home movie shot by an acquaintance, a real-life chronicle of a crack-fueled road trip in which several of the "principals" undergo stark transformations.
"I like to poke fun at people who take drugs too far; the speed freaks and junkies and acid heads," says Christ, who is polishing off the remains of a fat, fragrant spliff even as he speaks. "This one guy starts out as a healthy 200-pounder and ends up skinny, with his hair shaved off and razor cuts all over his body because he thinks he has bugs under his skin. Some of the looks of horror on this guy's facethere's no way I could ever hope to recreate stuff like that dramatically."
And expect the man who would be a shock-film deity to carry on more of his wince-inducing shenanigans hereabouts, as he continues to avail himself of the sundry conveniences that have made Knoxville a new pulpit, of sorts, for the Gospel according to Christ.
"My following around here is actually pretty strong; my last couple of shows have been full houses," Christ enthuses. (Many of his works are available locally at the Disc Exchange.) "As far as I'm concerned right now, I'll be back in Knoxville for anything I'm going to shoot."
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