I met Tupelo native Mike McCarthy at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi a little over two weeks ago and I found myself surprised to realize I’d heard of the guy. I caught his ultra low-budget film “Superstarlet A.D.”years back which was released by shlockmeister/producer Lloyd Kaufman, famous for his “Troma” brand of low budget exploitation flicks. I wasn’t a fan of the film, but I got a clear grasp for McCarthy’s style and obsessions. McCarthy spends his time in Memphis soaking up the hip Midtown scene and planning feature film projects. He fetishizes pin-up girls, rockabilly music and indie film… precisely all the ingredients that make up his latest opus, “Cigarette Girl.” When he and producer Jay Carl Nelson invited me to the Memphis premiere, I never imagined I would discover a hidden, thriving cinema culture right here in the heart of the Mid South. In fact, the whole experience reminded me of all the reasons I got into the film business in the first place.
In a future where the very act of smoking represents class struggle, the city of Metropolis itself is divided into two sections, smoking and non-smoking. Devoid of police and hospitals, the smoking area becomes the last refuge of crime, debauchery and unbridled freedom. Tobacco bootlegger Cigarette Girl (Cori Dials) has decided to kick the habit after her Grandmother (Helen Bowman) comes down with terminal emphysema. Her employer, Ace (J. Lazarus Hawk), has grown weary of her side-dealings and plans to kill her after replacing her with a desperate runaway teen (Ivy McLemore). Plagued by withdrawal-induced hallucinations and a price on her head, Cigarette Girl decides to solve her problems with the last present her Grandmother gave her… a gun.
To compare this labor of love to a big-budgeted Hollywood film would be unfair. “Cigarette Girl” epitomizes guerrilla indie film by experimenting liberally with the medium. It employs hazy, green-toned imagery and dilapidated settings. The retro décor of the sets and the rockabilly costumes feel natural in the world McCarthy has created. It looks like a sleazy dystopian hell to the square crowd, but the progressive viewer will appreciate the detailed fantasy world, rich with atmosphere and attitude.
McCarthy’s picturesque muse, Cori Dials, steals the film entirely. The newcomer handles her scenes like a pro, batting her eyes, swaying her hips and posing seductively like a reincarnation of Betty Page. The camera loves her and I feel the silver screen could use a bit more of her in the years to come (where’s a casting agent when you need one?). Also noteworthy is James Buchanan who brings some comedic relief as the scummy henchman Johnny Valet and Helen Bowman as the tragic Grandma. McCarthy makes the most of the rest of his cast made up mostly of local amateurs, artists and stage actors. The weaker performers don’t hurt the production considering the fact that cheesiness factors into the equation. They fit the look, attitude and tone of the film exactly as McCarthy intended.
Of exceptional note in the technical departments, I have to give a big congrats to the music creators and mixers. The tunes were a big highlight of the flick and I’m sure the public would benefit from some sort of soundtrack release. Likewise the costumers and the location scouts hit spot-on. The digital effects sold the illusion and I found myself mesmerized by the exceptional opening credit sequence.
As with all dirt-cheap indies, you can expect drawbacks. The film suffered most from poor sound quality, uneven pacing and dodgy editing; but again this comes with the territory. What fails in one scene works well in another and I noted some exceptional camera shots that counterbalanced the sloppy ones.
Keeping in line with the counterculture filmmakers of yesteryear, McCarthy’s style evokes the works of Russ Meyer, John Waters and Ed Wood. Misunderstood in their time (and even now), these infamous misfits excelled in their passion, vision and drive. Those of us who spent time in Hollywood know these virtues are the key ingredients to artistic, if not monetary, success in the world of cinema. Mike McCarthy, his investors, his crew and those who believe in him know this better than anyone. The overwhelming group of supporters who came to his sold-out premiere screenings bear the evidence of that fact.
At the after party at Nocturnal in Midtown, McCarthy’s uncle from Tupelo (not “Uncle Tupelo” as Mike liked to joke) played some acoustic, Elvis-like tunes. Following him, McCarthy, Cori Dials and friends got up to play a few rockabilly songs, then the beach-rock music of Impala finished out the night. The look on Mike McCarthy’s face reminded me of the bliss of cinematic creation. He lives for nights like this.
By the time you read this, “Cigarette Girl” will have made its oh-so-brief run in the theater/festival circuit (besides screenings at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Sept. 24-26 at 1pm) and it now awaits some form of distribution. I spent awhile speaking to a friendly guy who flew all the way out from Hollywood to investigate the possibility of buying up the film to release it to the masses. I found this encouraging that H-Town still has an interest in these fringe indie films, especially those from the Mid South. I can only perceive this as a good thing, not only for cinema in general, but to also promote the culture and art of this fine region.
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