Ulli Lommel, director and MC of the gonzo mockumentary “America: Land of the Freeks,” is the sort of scurrilous Euro art scavenger you’d be happy to see a real documentary about. Born in Germany in 1944, he started off as an actor, becoming part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s mutating stock company (he was the Godardian gangster at the heart of Fassbinder’s startling 1969 debut feature, “Love Is Colder Than Death”). He then began to direct his own outsider B-movies, like the Fassbinder-produced serial-killer drama “The Tenderness of Wolves” (1973), the scraggly drug noir “Cocaine Cowboys” (1979), the punk docudrama “Blank Generation” (1980), and “The Boogeyman” (1980), a low-budget ghost story that was enough of a fluke schlock horror hit to foster a couple of sequels. Lommel became a friend and collaborator of Andy Warhol’s and continued to make films up until this past December, when his death by heart failure provoked headlines like “Ulli Lommel: Cult horror director with lowest IMDb rating dead at 72.”
In “Land of the Freeks,” Lommel, in his Stetson and sunglasses, appears before us as the Complete Aging Cowboy Hipster. He’s like Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Udo Kier, Don Imus, and Elvis all rolled into one creepy craggy wax figurine. Lommel, who moved to Los Angeles in 1977, always kept his finger on the pulse of American obsessions, and his movie presents itself as an excavation of America in the Trump era, with the entire population of blowhards at one another’s throats. But what this comes down to is a lot of broadly staged “satirical” reality-TV riffs, with the performers shoving their hostile overacting in your face. The movie wants to be “Natural Born Killers” crossed with “Mad TV,” but it demonstrates that Lommel, for all his up-to-the-minute pretensions, was lost in a 1970s daze. Too many sketches take aim at old targets like faith healing, and there’s one about the corruption of the airline industry in which a trio of bubbly actresses portray self-described “stewardesses” out of an ancient Playboy cartoon.
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There are also slavering nuns out of “The Devils,” a transgender wannabe in a dime-store wig named Erica America (Tanner King Barklow), a boxing ring in which people get to beat up bankers, a portrait of the world’s oldest porn actress, and, in the film’s one legitimately effective sequence, an interview with an aging militia cultist (played by the relatively convincing Chris Kriesa) who articulates, in his bellicose way, where today’s “anti-globalist” paranoia is coming from.
But Lommel, as a filmmaker, never could separate his good ideas from his trendy and downright wretched ones. How, for instance, can you make a movie that tries to deconstruct America’s current “insanity” only to present with a completely straight face, as if it were evidence, a “CIA document” about the moon landing that includes a page signed by Stanley Kubrick? It’s followed by video footage of the actual moon landing with an overdubbed voice saying, “Okay, that’s a wrap.” Lommel, on the soundtrack, sums up the subject of his movie by saying, “This whole insanity was like a disease affecting everyone.” Maybe so, but “Land of the Freeks,” in the screw-loose didactic way it diagnoses the noise, is just one more example of it.