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Held in the Thrall of the Awful

On a lost summer’s eve in the year 199something, my life changed forever when I was romanced, just like in a storybook, by the worst eighty minutes of cinema ever made. I was not alone that night; my friend Koslonsky (name changed for no real reason) also bore witness to what appeared on my television screen and remained there, its spirals of pulchritude embedding themselves into our already dicey brain stems for all eternity, for what seemed like days. The movie was not Plan Nine From Outer Space, as you might guess—in fact, I never want to hear another mention of that work again, for its wretchedness, though certainly immense as the universe itself, is simply old news. The torch has been passed.

There are others whom Koslodsky and I have sworn into the brotherhood over the ensuing years, the brotherhood of Ripoff. Like malnourished survivors of a more benevolent Bataan Death March, we share a secret that binds us together, but I feel that only I have the passion to explain Ripoff to the world, because I said so, and that time has come. A decade has passed since I saw it first, I am older and wiser, my vocabulary now includes words like benevolent.

So here is what happened:

We were sitting there in my room at about ten p.m. eating pretzels when channel 54 began to show this movie. "Welcome to the Movie Greats Network," said channel 54, and Ripoff began, its celebrated opening shot of the wizened, august Acropolis seeming all the more amazing when you consider that this is also a movie which features shots of a Texan getting his pants pulled off his legs from underneath a bathroom stall and an illegal alien placing a dead bug inside a baked potato to avoid paying his dinner bill. It can safely be said that the opening image features Ripoff’s last shred of dignity, because from there, as my uncle Roger used to say, "Hooooooo boy."

The Grecian-made Ripoff (circa 1976 or so) is the story of two halfwit entrepreneurs who stow away on a cargo ship to America, where they hope to make their fortunes in Las Vegas with, according to halfwit #1, Mario, "a plan that can’t fail." This plan apparently consists of Mario and halfwit #2, his dashing yet illiterate buddy John, getting the crap kicked out of them by pimps, sleeping with old women whom Mario thought had a lot of money, and trying to master the basic syntax of the English language only to emit sentences like "My friend John’s in big problems" and "This is once-in-lifetime type of chance." But Ripoff is about more than that. In its frames we, the sophisticated American audience, are given a harsh lesson in the vagaries of film technique, evidenced in the many out-of-focus shots, scenes where the camera seems to be literally tumbling off its tripod, and a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting f-stops which sometimes turn the frame a brightish blue in mid-sequence, probably because the director of photography kept forgetting to hit the little switch that says DAYLIGHT. None of this hodgepodge is as golden as what we see in the fabled restaurant scene, during which the set completely changes from one shot to the next, a continuity error so titanic, so crystalline in its absurdity, that I seem to remember the force of Koslopsky’s laughter causing his kidneys to spontaneously switch places. Ripoff also provides the viewer with a compelling cross-sectional view of early seventies America, where it seems every woman was a total whore, every black man carried a switchblade and actually said stuff like "So you got a lotta bread, bruthah," and Jewish people were almost exclusively bald traveling salesmen named Mort Green.

Evidence supplied by the opulent opening credit sequence suggests the movie was the notion of a skinny swinger named Michael Benet, who plays John as a wide-eyed innocent just scrumdiddlyumptious to the ladies, and who one day must have decided to use the eighty dollars or so he’d made from dogsitting over the years to produce a movie he likely believed would make a big splash in the all-too-forgiving world of international cinema. Benet is the star here; you can tell because Ripoff features him not only nailing every woman in the cast (see the reference to total whores in the above paragraph) but breaking out into two memorable dance sequences, one in a Greek restaurant where many fine fine ladies drool on his handsome arm and throw plates and whatnot, and one in an idyllic cow pasture in the American southwest, where a horse watches the proceedings with what can only be described as guarded optimism. Benet’s dancing, a series of lascivious hops, turns, and scissor kicks reminiscent of the movement of little plastic football men on a vibrating electric board, underscores Ripoff’s central theme: If you’re going to make a total vanity film, try not to make yourself and all others involved with the project look like semi-retarded dishwashers.

Some other stuff to be seen in Ripoff:

The ugliest cafeteria cashier ever captured on thirty-five millimeter film.

Two Vegas prostitutes engrossed in a game of chess.

A large van with flowers on it driven by a hippie named....yeah, Sunshine.

A man dressed only in his underpants driving a utility cart across an airport runway.

A man dressed only in his underpants doing something entirely different.

Wide lapels.

People with funny-looking heads.

A guy eating beans for the last time.

A freeze frame of two idiots parachuting from a 747 (oh hell, I just gave away the ending).

To affix the tag of Worst Ever to a movie is a foolhardy risk akin to hoisting a great steamship over a steep, forested mountain, which Klaus Kinski‘s character did in Werner Herzog‘s Fitzcarraldo, a movie that has nothing in common with Ripoff beyond the fact that both are talkies. When speaking of suckiness, we must always remember that the twentieth century gave us Showgirls, Battlefield Earth, and any movie involving anyone taking anyone else under their wing. But in Ripoff we are offered not just a car wreck of a film, but a car wreck of a film that can be wrecked again and again. Repeated viewings reveal not just layers, but ladders of atrociousness. For example, it was not until the ninth or tenth viewing of Ripoff that I noticed that when Mario and John filch money from the Mafia briefcase entrusted to them by a mob boss whose vast income is ostensibly generated from the efforts of six drug-addled hookers, they grab maybe two hundred bucks from the case and escape Vegas believing themselves to be wealthy beyond imagining. And how many Christmas mornings have I spent with the remote control, listening again and again to Ripoff’s penultimate line reading: a ship porter’s angry cry of "HEY, YOU, STOP", the commas between each word almost visible on his lips and growing more and more pronounced with each lustily anticipated turn through the VCR. Perhaps the true measure of a Worst Ever is the tremendous, unconditional affection one can offer it, and it is at this point in my essay that I go so far as to claim that Ripoff has given me more sensory and emotional enrichment than any of my supposedly caring ex-girlfriends or any children I might ever accidentally have.

Some time ago, my friend with whom I shared my first experience of Ripoff on that long-ago night suggested we somehow purchase the rights to the film and market it on DVD, complete with extras, which might include everything from our own running commentary to actual phone sex ads that channel 54 showed during the commercial breaks. But those rights, I fear, are never to be had; a lengthy canvassing of the internet revealed to me virtually no mention of Ripoff apart from a mysterious listing in the Internet Movie Database—which offered no information about the film aside from an errant release date of 1985. (Something tells me most of the people associated with the film were deported from their country of birth by 1980 at the latest.) A casual phone call placed to channel 54 just seven years or so after they screened Ripoff for a grateful nation turned up surprisingly little viable data. It was almost as if they simply didn’t care.

Ripoff is no ghost, though. I taped that magnificent excreta, and gave copies to friends, and one day, if necessary, I shall wander the frozen earth like the literary pariahs of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, who memorized entire books so that future generations would someday recover them. I feel certain that on one blustery autumn afternoon in the year two thousand something something, weary, hardworking citizens will file into the American Film Institute to watch a restored print of Ripoff, thanks to the efforts of a Chosen One who might not yet even be born, but who will watch in jaw-dropping awe as Michael Benet beats up the Mafia thugs who try to plant drugs on him in scene four by leaping and kicking and poking and spinning and going Hayaaaaaa, and though the Chosen One will certainly be confused as to A) why someone is planting drugs on this harmless doofus to begin with and B) why the lighting on the set becomes twice as intense from one shot to the next, he will go forth and do what destiny commands, and I thank him even now, but for what I cannot possibly fathom.