This very weekend in the Springsteen-lauded town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, a convergence of freaks, geeks, and celebrities will occur to celebrate all things cinema.
The unifying event is known as Tromadance, and even amongst the film making community, it is relatively unique. Unlike large institutions such as Sundance or Cannes, Tromadance requires no submission fees from artists looking to have their work screened. Furthermore, there's no admission cost for attendees, and no velvet ropes. It is a festival where celebrities and film-goers are equal, and encouraged to mingle openly.
Sponsored by the world's longest running independent film studio, Troma Entertainment, the perks of Tromadance certainly must seem like a sweet deal to the casual onlooker. However, for those of us who are well aware of Troma's history, it's just another in a long line of contributions the studio has made to the championing of independent art.
The man most directly responsible for Troma's long history is Lloyd Kaufman. A filmmaker and cinematic impresario, Kaufman has been on the front lines of the battle for artistic rights for nearly four decades.
Along with his business partner (the enigmatic Michael Herz), Kaufman founded Troma in 1974, seeking to provide a venue for offbeat filmmakers and gonzo artists to distribute their hard work. For the next ten years, Kaufman's own farcical comedies, along with a variety of avant-garde films the studio distributed, made a dent in late night cable, earning Troma early bragging rights as a Hollywood alternative.
However, it wasn't until 1985 that Troma found its voice in the guise of New Jersey's first superhero: The Toxic Avenger. Created as a response to the notion that the midnight movie was dead, The Toxic Avenger was a slapstick, superhero horror flick that had a message beneath its outrageous veneer. Using the film as sly social commentary about man's mistreatment of the environment, the film became a huge success, spawning sequels and a Saturday morning cartoon. Furthermore, Toxie set the mode for the future of Troma, inspiring them to take on a variety of topics in their films that the demographic-obsessed folks of Los Angeles dare not touch. From government corruption to animal rights (Kaufman's Poultrygeist was voted by MSN as one of the "Top Civil Rights Films of All Time" for its message about animal abuse), Troma has always been willing to "go there" to make a statement.
Yet, the aim of this article is not to provide a lesson on the history of Troma, but rather to illustrate the significance of the man behind it all. Because of his outrageous approach to film, Lloyd Kaufman has often been treated as a pariah by the folks in Hollywood. He never sought to make movies that appealed to Middle America. He wanted to create and distribute films that said something.
Furthermore, Kaufman believes in the art form itself. He's always maintained that if you put love, sweat, and tears into the making of your art, it deserves the opportunity to be seen...
...and that's the platform that Troma has provided to young artists since the beginning.
Kaufman has introduced the world to so many performers and filmmakers over the course of his career, it's almost staggering. Kevin Costner, Marisa Tomei, Billy Bob Thornton, and many more got their start on Troma productions, and yet, most of them fail to mention this when reflecting on their careers. Ultimately, this is because the work of Troma is challenging, and doesn't fit nicely into audience-friendly boxes. However, I maintain that Kaufman's desire to create art outside of comfort zones is exactly why he deserves endless praise.
Kaufman's always been an advocate of art and all of its voices. From the very beginning, he was a staunch supporter of LGBT cinema in an era when it was still very much taboo to have gay characters onscreen. He's written essays on the need for more female filmmakers, and has been on the front lines of the battle for net neutrality, because he believes the internet is a place where people should be able to share their work unhindered by corporations.
Lloyd's a champion of expression, and he fights for it with every fiber of his being. It's because of this that I know, without a single doubt, that one day he will be celebrated with the same reverence as Duchamp or Warhol, his outrageous audacity and love of art finally recognized for its true importance.
But one day isn't good enough, I want the world to know now.
In my few years in the world of indie cinema, Lloyd's become a friend, but he's still one of my heroes. I've witnessed him take his scrapes from the art community at large, and without a beat, dust himself off and hit the road to promote the latest undiscovered masterpiece of the underground.
Lloyd works tirelessly to bring the art to the people, which, in this day and age is a true rarity.
So, as Tromadance rolls outs its red carpet this weekend, I wanted to just take this briefest of moments to celebrate a man who, despite a world of blockbusters and demographic-friendly flicks, is still an artistic outlaw in the truest sense of the word.
Lloyd Kaufman's out there fighting for movies and for expression, so in that sense, he's also fighting for you.
This one's for you, Lloyd.