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The Clown Tape (1990): The Start of Something Very Beautiful Indeed

The Clown Tape (Rick Groel, 1990)

(note: review originally published 1Dec2008)

photo credit: serialkillercalendar.org

You have likely never seen this cover before. You may never see it again.

photo credit: Goat

You go another ten seconds and you see the name “John Bepler.” You can imagine where my jaw was the first time I watched this.

Once again I find myself reviewing a short (and in this case, one it’s likely very few people will ever see, given that it’s twenty years old and was never exactly popular), but my god, what a short it is. The name of Rick Groel probably won’t mean much to the average bear; to the best of my knowledge, this is the only thing he ever directed, and most of his career has been spent writing for TV shows run by Nickelodeon. But when you dig a little farther into the credits, fans of avantgarde film should start seeing some names they recognize. Most notably, the movie was produced and shot by Peter Strietmann and scored by Jonathan Bepler. If those names don’t ring a bell, let me help you. Five years after this, Strietmann went to work with a recent film-school grad named Matthew Barney to work on a short film named Cremaster 4. The next year, when Barney filmed its sequel/prequel Cremaster 1, Strietmann suggested replacing Joe Brady, who’d done the score for the first film, with his old pal Johnny Bepler. And let me tell you: even the Cremaster cycle’s harshest critics praise both Strietmann’s cinematography and Bepler’s music. You put the two together, and magic happens.

photo credit: yours truly

Yes, everything about this screams “eighties corporate sales video.” Which only adds to the charm.

Such is the case here, with Groel’s “mockumentary” of a guy who decides to follow in the footsteps of another guy fifteen years earlier who’d decided to drive from San Francisco to Brooklyn in a Ryder rental truck wearing a clown suit and make-up. Was the original guy nuts? Is this one? We don’t know, but we suspect.

What sets this apart from your run-of-the-mill mockumentary is the seemingly bottomless despair of the thing. There’s some humor here, to be sure, but it’s black humor of the most uncomfortable variety much of the time. Our protagonist seems to start off normal enough (well, normal except for wanting to drive across the country in a clown suit), but pretty quickly starts flirting with madness. The way in which this transformation is shown us on the surface is humorous, but there’s a lot going on underneath, which we get to see in what’s designed to look more like behind-the-scenes footage. The movie itself slides down that hill with him, with shots starting to look more and more deranged, blackout and blur bars misplaced, and the like. On the surface, it seems like a no-budget bit of fluff, but this is really a scary little look into the mind of someone going rather quickly insane. (And if you haven’t caught on by the end, just wait till you hear the hysterical Clown Tape theme song.) Genius. Almost impossible to find these days, but if you stumble upon it at your local Goodwill, as a colleague of mine did, it’s well worth the two or three bucks you’ll shell out for it. ****

photo credit: mah own bad self

Am I seriously about to compare this to Jon Jost? You’re damned right I am.

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

7 responses »

  1. Peter Strietmann

    “You have to find yourself in a clown.”
    -Chantal (appears in the Clown Tape).

    Reply
  2. I have the VHS in my basement. It’s too scary to watch after 20 years.
    Maybe someday I will. “Rosebud”, on acid.
    Popeman

    Reply
  3. I was an investor in the making of the Clown Tape. No, I never saw a return. Yes, I’m still a patron of the arts, but my definition of “the arts” has narrowed considerably. I would point out Rick’s vision did pre-date the reality TV phenomenon, which is laudable. However, combining reality with the theater of the absurd was only episodically successful. One is almost tempted to revive the project for a fresh look……….potentially with a notable actor like Scott Baio or Fraplen Warsky.

    Reply
  4. Very unique film. Too bad it isn’t more readily available, and on DVD. It would probably have quite the cult following. Here’s Rick Groel today:

    Reply
    • I continue to hold out hope that if Palm Pictures ever gets off their duffs and releases that Cremaster box they’ve been hinting at on and off for the past decade, this will show up as an extra/easter egg/something…

      Reply

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