Brooklyn — based filmmaker Ronni Thomas makes ethical exploitation films. Thomas is the creator of Midnight Archive, a web series of short films dedicated to strange and macabre curiosities. In his most recent film, Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens (premiering June 6 at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, watch the trailer here), Thomas hypes up Potter’s genteel, freakishly detailed displays of taxidermy cats and rabbits. Thomas shoots Potter’s work with a fetishistic eye for detail, highlighting intricate coffin inscriptions and the texture of graveside dirt in Potter’s characteristically elaborate diorama The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.
But Thomas also humanizes his interview subjects, taking time to ask them why they’re attracted to Potter’s work. The Voice sat down with Thomas to discuss “sensitive exploitation” films, Catholic school, and Queen guitarist Brian May’s love of 19th-century diableries.
In Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens, one interview subject explains that Potter’s dead animals were considered vermin, and that he got rabbits and other animals from [local publicans]. But where did he get the dead kittens he used in The Kittens’ Wedding? That display is such a disturbing piece of work.
Everybody wants to know about the kittens! The treatment of animals in Potter’s time was so different than it is today. The RSPCA, the British ASPCA, was formed right around Potter’s time. But before then, animals were treated so poorly. [The British] didn’t see them as anything more than dispensable creatures. So if the population of feral cats got too great, they’d round ’em up, throw ’em in a sack, and drown them in the river.
Potter was known as this guy that would do things with dead things that would otherwise be floating in a bag down a river. So why not? There’s almost a sentimentality to it. Potter saw animals as more than just creatures on the street. The English have very little reverence for anything. London’s my second home, and my films generally do better there than here since I’m more well-known there. But they barely keep pets. The very idea, even to the sensitive [Brits], seems like a waste of time. I don’t know why, but that’s England.
Potter’s work boosted business at the local pub, so they paid for his own private museum. I know you’re working with the Museum of Morbid Anatomy at the Proteus Gowanus Gallery.
That’s coming up. That’s not open yet, but it’s going to be a magical place. The Proteus Gowanus Gallery hosted the Observatory Gallery. [Founding Observatory member] Joanna [Ebenstein] runs the Museum of Morbid Anatomy, which was a blog that exploded into a scene. I would host events at the Observatory. My Midnight Archive web series made available the presentations given at the Observatory. The Observatory is now opening a separate gallery in Gowanus, and in quite an expansive space.
You once gave a presentation at the Observatory on your collection of “mid-19th-century 3D demonic stereo-tissues.” How does one amass a collection of “mid-19th-century 3D demonic stereo-tissues?”
Yes, diableries. I’m obsessed with the Devil. Taxidermy and death aside, the Devil is my No. 1 thing. And my wife bought me this [stereoscope]. I didn’t want pictures of the Colosseum, or Athens, or silly things. I wanted something I would react to.
So, the Devil.
Right! Brian May, the guitarist for Queen, is an avid collector of diableries. He’s one of six or seven people who really care for those things. Many of my subjects are people that care for [curios] that are essentially the bastard children of art history. And if nobody steps up, these things will disappear.
But these [artifacts] are historical footnotes because there’s usually something, if not perverse, then off-putting about them. Your films are essentially exploitation films, in that they take advantage of their subjects’ lurid qualities. But you put stuff like Potter’s work into context, and make your interview subjects’ interests seem a little less strange. Is there a line you won’t cross, where you say, “This subject is too icky”?
I’m a Catholic. There’s nothing too gross or too scary. But crossing lines of social respect . . . Unlike journalists, I’ll always allow my subjects the opportunity to take things out [of their interviews.] I tell them, “I don’t want you to look like an idiot.” I have a deep respect for the people I interview. Within a few minutes, I usually know if an interview subject is somebody I want to be around. And I want to be around 99 percent of people. But I would never make that other 1 percent look foolish.
I find the term “exploitation” helpful. I’ve come up with a term to describe my films: sensitive exploitation. When people know they’re going to be exploited — as long as you don’t take advantage of that like Fox News might. For instance, I don’t like the term “freak,” and I don’t like when that term is thrown around. They’re just peculiar, which is a more intellectual term, because what’s peculiar is just different. My subjects are peculiar. There’s only five people in my Potter film, and all of them have heart, and soul, and are some of the most sensitive people I’ve met. I want to preserve them that way. Filmmaking is like taxidermying humans.
Do you ever run into a subject where you think, “I really like this character, but he’s unwell, and I don’t want to take advantage of him”?
That does happen. But I think it’s important to question that [impulse]. I’m an explorer. I want to learn, I want to know. And sometimes that implies going further than other people go, questioning taboos. Why is taxidermy both taboo and on the popular mind? [Taxidermy] is not just fur coats; fur coats are just vanity. Taxidermy is, arguably, preserving history. It’s scientific: If the last gray [Bili] ape goes extinct, can we at least preserve its skin in a form representing what it once when it was alive? I don’t think that’s exploitation; I think that’s keeping history alive, and moving forward.
But as is said in your film, Potter’s work hails from the freak-show — like tradition of the cabinet of curiosities. So there is an element of exploitation to it.
As a kid that was raised on gore, Faces of Death was my film! And my earliest career was as Troma’s DVD guy for four years, stuff like Toxic Avenger IV and Terror Firmer. I don’t make horror films; I make films that are maybe morally questionable because of their subject matter. Well, it’s Victorian England. We can’t really speak to their morals.
And yet, you’re dealing with these subjects from a contemporary perspective. Are there any common assumptions people make about your films based on their subjects?
I grew up working-class, and the privilege to that was I knew I was strange, and I knew nobody cared. If you say it with a smile, “I document dead kittens,” they smile about it, and nobody gives a damn. I have a nine-year-old kid, and he’s in Catholic school. And we’re best friends with some of the parents there. They don’t give a damn — the principal doesn’t care! People want this stuff; they just don’t know where to find it.