The El Duce Tapes: feeling bad for a bad person
When you take your seat, stumbling in the dark, and begin staring at the silver screen, there is always that moment of beautiful uncertainty. You have some expectations, sure, but you don’t know where a film is going to take you – if it’s going to make you think, laugh, cry; if it will cling to your mind for long or if it will send you to sleep.
I didn’t know what to expect when I went to watch The El Duce Tapes; I’m not a heavy metal fan, and I had never heard of Eldon Hoke, more widely known as El Duce. As far as I was concerned, he could have been a rockstar – it turns out he was not. I was a bit afraid this film would be yet another musical documentary about some cult band that disappeared years ago – turns out it was not. But what is certain is that I was not expecting to ask myself if it is possible to feel sorry for a Nazi, rapist and misogynist monster. Or – at least – for someone who proudly claims to be such.
El Duce was not a rockstar, but he became a legendary figure in rock circles. Lead singer and composer of The Mentors, his trademark was performing bare chested and masked with a large black hood – a la medieval executioner. That’s how he walks on stage at the beginning of the film. Scary, isn’t it? And you haven’t heard anything yet – literally. Once El Duce starts to sing, in between a “Sieg Heil” or two, his metal shock songs glorify the most abhorrent levels of humanity: rape & golden showers are a predominant favourite. In just a few seconds on screen, he has already broken most of our societies etiquettes. Disgusting, but impressive.
We’re in the early ‘90s, and a wannabe actor has discovered a unique specimen among the LA wildlife – El Duce – passed out in his garden. He has the brilliant idea to record his outrageous life for a documentary, and he keeps filming him for the following couple of years on hundreds of VHS tapes. This project was later abandoned, and never meant to be completed, until David Lawrence and Rodney Ascher discovered the hidden taped treasure a few years ago. And this is how it is stylistically and gloriously presented to us: a VHS collage of interviews, live performances and the best(?) moments recorded: the grainy quality matches and perfectly frames the ambiguous context of the film. Thus, the vintage flavour is constantly accentuated in front of us, and it helps underlie the temporal separation from today. Our society seems to have undergone massive cultural and social changes in less than 30 years, and “rape” rock performances would simply not be conceivable today: if it was offensive then, it’s radioactive now.
But let’s get back to El Duce, and why/how I would later feel sorry for someone who did his very best to look like an awful man. Yes, he was praising the most despicable things on stage, but did he truly mean them? Or perhaps presenting himself as the living worst was a mere but cunning commercial device? Off-stage, Eldon is a lonesome outcast with no home, no money, and no job. Acclaimed and applauded on stage, without his dark hood he was just a drunkard loser. Pushing the offensive limits to the extreme seemed to be the only way to be noticed – to be distinguished – and it proved to be a rather successful commercial strategy. Better to be the best, even if the best of being awful, than just a mediocre bad, right?
I don’t know if El Duce was truly what he liked to preach. And after getting to know him under his mask through this intimate documentary, I personally don’t think so. His friends and family are not ashamed, nor scared, nor repulsed by him, and have innocent if pitiful anecdotes to share. I believe he was a precursor of the many, wealthy provocateurs who crowd our social media every day. An advocate of free speech, a modern-day Rousseau who dedicated and committed his whole existence in the sophisticated social critique today known as trolling. And, perhaps, he is not the troubled one if we would condemn a song and its singer, whilst approving mass murderers because they are wearing suits (just like his father, an affirmed white collared scientist who built napalm bombs and regularly beat up his children). Physical, harmful violence hidden under society’s dark hood, versus a stereotype of violence only used as a disguise, a mask, to deliver something else – a spark of reflection, and maybe art. Yes, art.
If “art” has the core aim to provoke and induce thoughts, reactions and deep feelings, then this fat, bare-chested, hooded Nazi is to be considered the quintessential artist. Sure, a misunderstood one, not far from Andy Kaufman, or – as the directors often compare him on screen – from Van Gogh. I am not trying to convince you that “Sandwich of Love” or “Kings of Sleaze” are as evocative as ‘Starry Night’. He was not Van Gogh. But, in his own way, he thought he was.
After all, did he have a better choice? Becoming El Duce was the only way society would pay attention to him, with TV shows, concerts, and people saluting him during his daily vagabonding around LA. Any attempt to clean up and conform would only result in his inevitable disappearance. Better ridiculed than ignored. Better hated than forgotten.
El Duce is gone, like the music genre he embodied, like the remote time he lived in and, in part, represented. And that is why, at the end of this humorous and shocking journey, I could only feel sorry for Eldon. He kept yelling the same chant, and yet I didn’t wonder if he was an actual monster anymore, but rather if he would consider himself accomplished of what he became, and proud to be perceived that way. Was it worth it, and is this what he expected?
Maybe Eldon, too, was looking for his own seat, and, stumbling in the dark, he comfortably sat on El Duce’s one. Sharing with us that same, precious, beautiful uncertainty.