The fan-made world of Jeff Krulik, from public access to parking lots to proto-peer-to-peer.
Heavy Metal Rules
In 1985, Jeff Krulik, a twenty-four-year-old station manager for a DC-area cable-access channel, met John Heyn, a young filmmaker who had worked in Baltimore as a production assistant on John Waters’s film Polyester
a few years before. Heyn contacted Krulik after reading about him in the Washington Post
, where he learned they both had worked on documentaries about dying local movie palaces. Bonding over a common love of exploitation films and other “weirdness and subculture,” as Krulik later put it, the two soon made plans to collaborate.
Heyn had the idea to interview fans at a concert outside Maryland’s Capital Centre arena. Seeing that a Judas Priest show was coming up in May ’86, they decided to commandeer equipment from Krulik’s television studio and give it a try. “It could have been any concert,” Krulik has recalled. “We weren’t metal fans. I had come from the punk, new-wave—whatever you call it—alternative-rock landscape. As did John, more or less. My favorite bands were the Cramps, the Clash, the Ramones, all that. So metal was the furthest thing from my record collection. I was never really dismissive of it. I just never patronized it or consumed it. But you didn’t have to be a metalhead to know about it, since it was all around you, and bands like Judas Priest were filling arenas.” Krulik and Heyn could never have known that their video would become one of the most legendary music documentaries of all time: Heavy Metal Parking Lot
, a razor-sharp chronicle of teen headbanger folkways.
“We were worried that we would encounter some dangerous bikers doing drug deals,” Krulik confessed to Decibel
magazine years later, “but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. People were falling all over themselves to be on camera.” One probable reason was that the two resembled news reporters, given the bulky rig they toted: an imposing one-tube camera attached to a suitcase-size handheld U-matic recording deck—the local TV standard of the time. The two switched off interviewing and recording as they worked the parking lot. “I can’t even imagine what people thought when they saw these two doofuses walking around with a ¾-inch camera and a separate deck and a microphone,” Krulik says. “We certainly didn’t look like the people in the crowd. I’m sure I was wearing a Lacoste shirt and a pair of OP shorts.” The pair shot only an hour of footage on three tapes, then left without entering the concert. Heyn edited this down to a little over fifteen minutes, and Krulik gave the tape its title.
Many of the Priest fans who appear in the footage assume that Krulik and Heyn, barely a decade older than most of them, are professionals, shooting for television or the band itself. Looking into the camera, the metalheads tell viewers not to drink and drive, blurt out messages to band members Rob Halford and Glen Tipton, or simply wave and shout. But not everyone is so welcoming. “I was trying to explain what public access was. It was Channel 6A,” Krulik remembers. “Nobody got it.” At one point, an off-screen Krulik gives up explaining and simply claims to be from MTV, to which a fan replies, “Bull. Shit.”
Since making Heavy Metal Parking Lot
, Krulik has produced scores of documentaries, though only a few have been shown widely. While he’s worked in television most of his life, the films he’s made on his own have never been broadcast in that medium. His work is screened at galleries, festivals, and museums worldwide, but he’s rarely described as an artist. Today an unassuming guy in his forties who could pass for a suburban dad, he’s drawn to chronicling the fringes of entertainment, from rock demimondes to corny showbiz characters—accordion players and porn-industry conventioneers, record collectors and fading TV stars—with an incisive eye for the details of personality, equalizing the extremes he traverses with a notable lack of pretension. His work is sometimes pegged as comedy, yet it contains melancholic undertones. He claims he doesn’t practice typical documentary gravitas, that he “doesn’t do the serious stuff,” yet one of his longest films deals with World War II and the Holocaust.
Despite this considerable body of work, Krulik’s most famous effort remains Heavy Metal Parking Lot
. The circuitous process through which this tape gained its renown was hardly one he could have predicted, much less controlled.
The Bootleg Network
Soon after Heavy Metal Parking Lot was finished, Krulik realized the video would never fly on Channel 6A: The swearing, drinking, and drugging by local teenagers wouldn’t have been tolerated by the management, and he wanted to keep his job. So he and Heyn found other ways to share it. The first public screening, in October 1986, was at DC Space, an art gallery known for hosting local bands. Later, Krulik got a part-time job selling used vinyl, and he screened the video at a record convention in Silver Spring, Maryland. Then it became a staple of what Krulik calls his “living-room festivals,” gatherings of friends watching the best—that is, the worst—clips culled from Channel 6A. He also gave copies to local record shops, which played it on monitors generally reserved for music videos and concert films.
Although there weren’t many public venues for a short video documentary at the time, Heavy Metal Parking Lot had a theatrical premiere in 1988, when it was shown before the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll at DC’s American Film Institute at the Kennedy Center. (Exhibiting videotapes in a movie theater was then uncommon, but the AFI was an early adopter of video projection.) In 1990, again at the AFI, Krulik programmed a one-shot series called the “Don’t Quit Your Day Job Film & Video Festival,” which screened works by himself, Heyn, and other locals, as well as bits of video ephemera. By that time, Krulik’s career in community TV was over, and he had moved on to producing segments for commercial cable networks. He assumed “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” would be Heavy Metal Parking Lot’s curtain call.
But the video took on a life of its own. Not long after completing the tape, Krulik and Heyn had begun handing out VHS copies to friends, colleagues, and anyone else who wanted one. “We gave it out like water,” Krulik says. “We didn’t sell it. We had totally appropriated Judas Priest music, hadn’t gotten any releases. It was a totally underground thing. We didn’t really have a plan.” The tapes were copied, circulated, and copied again. Without either filmmaker’s knowledge, Heavy Metal Parking Lot
Passing around homemade videotapes at the time wasn’t so unusual. The ’80s and ’90s were a golden age of bootlegging via audio and video cassette. The items circulated among friends would be familiar to YouTubers and BitTorrenters today: feature films and major-label albums, to be sure, but also a vast clutter of miscellany like celebrity porn clips, concert bootlegs, films transferred from 16-mm or 35-mm prints that had never received a proper video release, blooper reels, and unclassifiable footage that was funny or strange or both, often just tacked on at the end of a tape for laughs. Some of these clips became notorious in their own right. A mix tape might have included pilfered audio of Casey Kasem’s verbally abusive in-studio tantrum
from an American Top 40
outtake; a VHS dub might have ended with a Metallica Drummer
coda, from a home video of a Canadian slacker’s consummate air drumming to selections from the band’s self-titled 1991 album.
Today, we might think of this pre-digital phenomenon as a long, slow file-sharing system, a free-for-all black market in which audio and video ephemera traveled hand-to-hand and deck-to-deck rather than peer-to-peer. Tapes meandered through an analog Internet, one composed of clunkier technologies. The further a tape traveled, the more times it was dubbed, becoming fuzzier with each iteration. Connoisseurs boasted of having second- or third-generation copies of rarities like Todd Haynes’s banned Carpenters biopic, Superstar
, and Prince’s long-unreleased The Black Album
, reveling in their relative clarity.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot
went viral through this network, and we may even have the identity of its Patient Zero: one Mike Heath, a fixture on the DC-area rock scene whom Krulik calls “the Johnny Appleseed of Heavy Metal Parking Lot
.” Part of the evidence is a Christmas card with the following inscription, which accompanied a bootleg tape that found its way back to Krulik:
Already an underground classic, one copy of this was given to me by Mike Heath, formerly of Washington, DC. It went on tour with Redd Kross, whose roadie Mike Dalke took it on tour with Nirvana. Redd Kross gave it to Evan Dando (Lemonheads) and it spread like wildfire. This is a second generation copy, and distributed in an edition of 10 for Christmas 1994, from Bill Bartell to my friends. Feel free to copy and spread the genius, as the filmmakers encourage this.
Of course, the anonymous holiday-card author couldn’t have had any real indication that Krulik or Heyn encouraged the bootlegging, though it’s likely this was part of the mythology developed by tape traders. Pat Fear, of the Los Angeles punk band White Flag, got a copy from Heath, and later told Heyn that Heath claimed “it was OK with you guys to make copies and distribute it as long as I wasn’t selling it.”
Fear gave a dub to Redd Kross, which got it to Dalke, Dave Grohl’s roadie, who played it on Nirvana’s bus during the 1993 In Utero
tour. “That tour had different opening acts every few days, so a lot of opening acts picked it up,” Fear told Heyn. “I was on the road with that tour while the Melvins were opening, and I walked into the Breeders’ dressing room and Kim and Kelly [Deal] were doing lines from the movie. I was stunned, as I had no idea it was getting around to that degree.” Traveling across the country’s bootleg network, Heavy Metal Parking Lot
had instigated a reversal of the fan-musician dynamic. When fans weren’t watching them perform, indie-rock musicians got their kicks by watching fans perform for them.
Fear also gave copies as Christmas gifts to members of Sonic Youth and other bands, even making his own box art with photos of three of Heavy Metal Parking Lot
’s wasted youth, by then micro-celebrities in their own right: the jumpsuited, shaggy-haired “Zebra Man”; the skinny fellow named “Graham, man, like ‘gram of dope’”; and the hair-sprayed, redheaded girl who declares she wants to jump Rob Halford’s bones. Fear wasn’t the only fan to make unofficial box-art for the tape: another anonymous sleeve featured cartoon caricatures of Graham and two of his cohorts.
While rock gossip has preserved an oral record of the tape’s most famous viewers, they’re best understood as symptomatic of a larger phenomenon. For every Grohl or Dando who acquired a copy, an unknowable number of unremembered cultists passed it on as well. Heyn even once found a personal ad in the back of an undated alt-weekly in which a girl declares, “I hate heavy metal music, but I love Heavy Metal Parking Lot
Heyn and Krulik had no idea Heavy Metal Parking Lot
had exploded until 1994, when Heyn received a call from Sofia Coppola, who had found his name in the DC phone book. Coppola, best known at the time for her role in The Godfather: Part III
, was a fan: she had rented a bootleg VHS from Mondo Video in Los Angeles and given dubs of it to her boyfriend, Spike Jonze, and her cousin Nicholas Cage.
Coppola was producing a pilot for the short-lived Comedy Central series High Octane
—a kind of Gen-X video-magazine show—and called Heyn to inquire about licensing Heavy Metal Parking Lot
for broadcast. Though Coppola’s show didn’t last long enough to air the tape, Krulik and Heyn became inspired by their underground notoriety. They reunited in 1996 to shoot Neil Diamond Parking Lot
: the same parking lot, ten years later, this time filled with middle-aged suburban moms chugging Diet Coke in their station wagons and humming “Sweet Caroline.” In 1997, Krulik packaged a new version of “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” around the two Parking Lot
videos. He premiered them for the first time outside the DC area at the New York Underground Film Festival, then toured the program at numerous festivals and film venues over the following year.
Since then, Heavy Metal Parking Lot
has reemerged every few years: a program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its fifteenth anniversary in 2001; a 35-mm blow-up to accompany the theatrical release of Chris Smith’s documentary Home Movie
in 2003; a Parking Lot
reality show produced by Krulik and Heyn on the defunct Trio network from 2004 to 2006; interviews and ironic fashion shoots with the directors in GQ
; and a legit DVD release
in 2005, complete with a “Dub-O-Vision” version made from a tenth-generation VHS. The tape has also spawned numerous imitations and tributes
, among them Heavy Metal Sidewalk
, Girl Power Parking Lot
, and Raver Bathroom
In the first years of Heavy Metal Parking Lot
’s existence, viewers may have been drawn primarily to the simple joys of laughing at shitfaced teens, but time has transformed the video from a mere stoner sideshow into a remarkably dense archive of a particular and increasingly distant moment—a pirate transmission from the past, reminding us how life was once lived otherwise. The video’s broad comedy remains an essential part of the viewing experience, but now we’re likely to appreciate finer details as well. The armed guard poised on top of the Capital Centre’s roof; the haughty intonation with which one girl declares her preference for Dokken, subtly distancing herself from her peers; the oddly fey lilt to one hairy headbanger’s dismissal of Rob Halford; the bleary-eyed hillbilly actually drinking from a mason jar; the girl’s hand in a white lace glove, jutting in from the side of the frame, silently shooting us the finger. Anthropologists should savor the sheer number of hairstyles and fashions preserved from the summer of 1986—they couldn’t wish for a richer ethnographic record.
Yet Heavy Metal Parking Lot
isn’t merely nostalgic admiration of an extinct hessian menagerie. Krulik and Heyn’s interactions with each group of fans offer evocative fragments of whole lives, captured on the pivot of youth. We meet Dave, who’s two weeks from shipping off to the air force, and then a gang of friends who’ve come to memorialize Timmy, a fellow fan who died in a car accident. Each interview is pregnant with a larger story: There are many worlds within the world of this parking lot, hundreds of young lives intersecting in a single ecstatic moment, then fanning off onto multitudinous pathways. Viewers of a certain age may recognize doppelgängers of themselves or of people they knew. No wonder Krulik once remarked, “Trying to dissect this film twenty years later is like dissecting the Talmud.”
Public Access Gibberish
Metal fandom isn’t the only lost culture that Heavy Metal Parking Lot
preserves. More obliquely, it stands as evidence from an earlier era of cable television, a milieu documented head-on in Krulik’s compilation tape Public Access Gibberish
. Edited in
1990, Public Access Gibberish
is one of Krulik’s earliest solo tapes. It was made for his first “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” show at the AFI and compiled the video detritus he had culled for his living-room festivals in the late 1980s. Krulik worked for public access for only a few years, from 1983 to 1989, but the experience was crucial in forming the aesthetic of Heavy Metal Parking Lot
and the documentary work that followed.
Public-access television in the United States has its origins in the 1960s. The earliest for-profit cable networks provided citizen-run airtime in exchange for use of the municipal roads and lands needed to run their cable lines. Along with public television, pirate stations, and art galleries, community-access channels provided a platform for the first wave of video activists. These artists’ collectives formed in the late 1960s after the introduction of the Sony Portapak, the first truly portable video-recording system (and the direct ancestor of Heyn and Krulik’s U-matic rig).
Early video artists’ hopes for cable access were utopian—if corporate media was numbing America’s consciousness, then citizen-run media would rouse it. “The basic business of cable is the cultivation of local culture,” wrote Paul Ryan, a member of early video collective Raindance, in the journal Radical Software
in 1970. “This does not mean stenciling national network type programming on a local setting.... The role of a cable system is to increase the community’s awareness of their existing cultural system, thereby giving them more control over its development: to cultivate the local culture...cable can enlarge the capacity of the local culture to communicate about and control its development.”
Ken Marsh, founder of the People’s Video Theater, left New York City for upstate New York in the early ’70s, where he brokered a deal with a local cable company to found Woodstock Community Television. In a pamphlet extolling the benefits of WCT, Marsh wrote that “community programming is a tool for vitalizing communications…in a time of complex and varying social values and problems.”
Similar aspirations for community television can be found in other pockets of New Left discourse, especially among those inspired by techno-prophets like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller. Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 counterculture guide Steal This Book
contains a section on producing and disseminating “guerrilla television.” Raindance’s Michael Shamberg produced manifestos on the dismantling of “Media-America.” New, alternative forms of television would do much more than entertain: Advocates hoped they would transform the fundamental political structure of America, both democratizing technology and technologizing democracy.
Throughout the 1970s, only a segment of cable companies provided local access; in 1984, after Congress passed the Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act—the bill requiring commercial cable companies to set aside a portion of their revenues for community use—community television spread to even the smallest towns. But granting widespread access to everyday people never caused the upheavals in political consciousness that Nixon-era activists dreamed it would, and when Krulik began working in cable during this era, he found the world of community TV far from heroic.
Right out of college in 1983, Krulik got a job selling cable TV door-to-door, which led to his appointment a year later as the director of the new public-access studio in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburb of DC. The community-television world he entered hardly threatened to overturn Maryland society. Krulik found himself overseeing Boy Scout celebrations, Sunday sermons, and PTA meetings. “Public access was a white elephant, a bribe to the counties to get cable franchises,” Krulik later explained. “The studios were only one of the incentives, but the counties didn’t care about production or having a studio for church services or community blowhards. That’s why they’d even consider putting a twenty-five-year-old in charge. I was basically a community babysitter.”
Whether or not community access served progressive political goals in other parts of the country, it certainly didn’t aspire to much in Prince George’s County. There, community access did indeed become a cultivator of local culture—as visionaries like Marsh had hoped—but largely of a banal variety. Yet Krulik found that even in this wasteland there were nuggets of excitement: shoddy magicians, outré Elvis impersonators, amateur hypnotists, hopeless Broadway wannabes, and living-room freak-funkers. He hoarded tapes of the stuff, encouraging the most offbeat personalities to use his studio. A tape trader himself, he exchanged dubs with a handful of like-minded people across the country.
Despite his cynicism about the actual community value of cable access, Krulik did see it as a curatorial opportunity: “Working at a public-access station was great in this respect,” he has said. “It was free, and it was immediate. It wasn’t television by any conventional parameters; it was freewheeling, free-form, anything-goes. It was a lot like college radio at the time. There was a distinct parallel between the two, and I really embraced it.” According to Krulik, his community-television captivity served as an incubator and an education. “I was always interested in filmmaking, but I had never taken filmmaking classes or even picked up a camera,” he’s said. “Public access was my production school. It’s where I developed an eye behind the camera and really took to it.”
But unlike college radio at the time, Krulik’s cable-access scene didn’t quite express resistance to mainstream entertainment. The fringe that Krulik gravitated toward as a station manager, and later showcased in Public Access Gibberish
, wasn’t about the subversion of mass media, but rather the desire to become part of it. Public access became a low-rent fame-vending machine, pairing the logic of karaoke and the psychology of the talent show, the same impulses later commercialized by reality television. It gave rise to video-maker versions of the garage band, determined to burn off the boredom of the suburbs with a momentary paroxysms of celebrity playacting. In this sense, form and content align: In the conclusion of Public Access Gibberish
, when the local cable editor transitions through shots of the Elvis impersonator via an ostentatious series of analog wipes, it is clear that both the impersonator and the editor are aping the big-budget pizzazz of MTV with meager means. People didn’t want to destroy mass media, they wanted to expand its reach so far as to include the masses themselves.
By the 1990s, Krulik’s public-access days were over, and he had moved on to freelance jobs producing segments for Discovery Channel and researching material for Errol Morris. Meanwhile, he embarked on a solo career as a filmmaker, making over forty documentaries ranging in length from seconds to nearly an hour. Though his work grows out of television, it shows mainly at noncommercial spaces, where he can get away with not clearing music rights or having signed releases from his subjects. In 1998, he launched Planet Krulik, a website that streamed all of his work to date for free—a cutting-edge notion at the time. More recently, he’s shut down that site temporarily and begun posting odds and ends to his own YouTube channel
According to Krulik, his primary inspirations as a director have been movies like Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization
, which documents the early Los Angeles punk scene, and the work of Chuck Statler, who made offbeat films for Devo to play along with on their tours and, fatefully, at DC’s Hirshhorn Museum in 1979, when Krulik was a high school senior. But he also cites San Francisco comedian Mal Sharpe, who with Jim Coyle created a series of Candid Camera
–style man-on-the-street segments for television and radio in the early ’60s, and a Sunday-morning DC talk show called Capitol Edition
, which he describes as a “real local, folksy series of profiles of interesting people around Washington.”
“Interesting people around Washington” could serve as a drastic understatement of Krulik’s own overarching project. For his videos, he seeks out characters who pepper the seemingly unremarkable DC area, particularly its white Maryland suburbs. In King of Porn
(1996), he profiles Ralph Whittington, an otherwise straitlaced archivist at the Library of Congress who’s built a massive home collection of hard-core pornography and is eager to walk Krulik through its idiosyncratic organization: VHS boxes mixed in with his breakfast cereal in the pantry, his compulsion to collect outstripping his professional penchant for organization.
In Obsessed with Jews
(2000), Krulik visits Neil Keller, an energetic accountant with a slight lisp who hoards trading cards depicting Jewish athletes, Jewish movie stars, and really, as Keller puts it, “anyone who’s Jewish.” In First Edition Barbara
(2000), Krulik hangs out with an awkward middle-aged woman who sits right up front at any DC-area book signing—no matter the author, no matter the book—and later reveals a squealing passion for Beanie Babies. The personality parade of Public Access Gibberish
marches on, but now Krulik seeks them out rather than waiting for them to come to him.
In other works, Krulik delves into the entertainment industry proper, albeit without the typical fawning or snark. For Ernest Borgnine on the Bus (1997), made with fellow television producer Brendan Conway, Krulik travels with the senior-citizen movie star, who enjoys driving around the country like any other retiree—but instead of an RV, Borgnine rides in his own souped-up tour bus. In Three Hour Tour (2000), Krulik and Conway chronicle a charity boat ride with the aged survivors of Gilligan’s Island, seemingly still stranded in the unglamorous trappings of B-level fame. Perhaps the finest of Krulik’s behind-the-scenes work is I Created Lancelot Link (1999), made with producer Diane Bernard, which visits the elderly creators of the early-’70s kids’ series Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp—a Get Smart–style spy spoof set in a world populated by chimpanzees, with elaborate chimp-size sets, props, and costumes. Creators Mike Marmer and Stan Burns reveal themselves to be Krulik’s kindred spirits, two guys who got away with something zany on the airwaves while management wasn’t looking. (They relate that a network executive did visit the set once, but left quickly, never to return, after a male chimp bit him.)
Despite his focus on peculiar individuals, Krulik rarely comes off as exploitative. Heavy Metal Parking Lot
and Public Access Gibberish
might contain trace elements of freak-gawking, an arguable tinge of disdain blended into their fascination, but most of the later works are unambiguously sympathetic. When we laugh, it’s complicated: These are charming weirdos who sometimes remind us of ourselves, and there’s often an undertone of pathos. One wonders what drives their compulsion to collect, and what happens off-camera when the slight high of minor celebrity fades. Though Krulik’s work possesses the engaging pace of television, he edits just a bit off the beat, letting shots linger slightly on his subjects after they’ve spoken, allowing for glimpses of an unguarded self: a rehearsed joke followed by a smile’s retreat.
This bittersweetness is most fully on view in Harry Potter Parking Lot
(2000), one of Krulik’s “parking lot” spin-offs, in which he interviews geeky children awaiting an appearance by J. K. Rowling at a DC-area bookstore. But these nervy, introverted youngsters are little like the carefree metalheads of 1986. One girl tells Krulik frowny tales of her lonely camp summers, another kid anxiously attempts to show off the Harry Potter
passage he’s memorized (again a form of compulsive collecting), and an empty-eyed boy offers that “everyone has magic inside of them, in every little way”—an unsettlingly hollow echo of kid-vid platitudes. When Rowling appears, the children are shuttled past her with the cold efficiency of an industrial assembly line.
Krulik’s work doesn’t condescend to its subjects because he’s just as much a fan or collector as those he pursues, a group he has taken to calling “Jeff’s People” in the titles of his screenings. (Another common tagline is “The Obsessed World of Jeff Krulik.”) Krulik provides a platform for his characters’ desires, and his documentaries feel like collaborations, bereft of the “gotchas” we’ve come to expect from the likes of Borat or The Daily Show
. His people love the camera and are eager to entertain—Whittington and Keller could go on for hours. This egalitarian sensibility reaches an apogee with Pancake
(2000), in which an IHOP waitress grabs Krulik’s camera from him, then takes it on a tour of the kitchen while commenting on her coworkers, until she inadvertently shuts it off.
Occasionally, Krulik himself makes an appearance, always self-deprecating, as if teetering on the edge of failure: as the studio manager in Public Access Gibberish
, hiding his face in shame; as an exasperated producer in King of Porn
, collapsed on Whittington’s bed after a marathon smut tour; as a seemingly lone cameraman in Harry Potter Parking Lot
, failing to impress an all-too-media-savvy ten-year old who wants to know where this video is going to show—the joke being, of course, that what Krulik does is something less than “real” television. One of Krulik’s favorite directorial pretenses is to appear as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and his stylistic hallmark is an erratically wandering camera, easily distracted by some detail just outside its view, that suddenly veers to reveal a visual punch line: a chubby, caped Harry Potter fan-kid with lightning-bolt face paint.
The closest Krulik has come to creating a feature-length documentary is the forty-six-minute Hitler’s Hat
(2003). Though more conventional than his other work—it’s the only piece with doc-standard talking heads and historical footage—it furthers his obsessions in less obvious ways. Venturing beyond his usual subject matter, he interviews surviving members of a World War II platoon who helped liberate a death camp at the end of the war, then raided one of Hitler’s apartments, finding the führer’s ceremonial top hat in a closet. Krulik allows each veteran to tell his own version of the story, keeping inconsistencies and gaps intact rather than forcing the accounts into false coherence. But they all remember one soldier’s impulsively stomping on Hitler’s hat upon finding it, and the cathartic laughter that ensued. Here the celebrity brought down to earth is Hitler himself, reduced from world-threatening demon to an old top hat.
One could cite precedents and parallels for aspects of Krulik’s work: Spheeris’s rock ethnographies, the outsider theatrics of the Maysles’s Grey Gardens
, the lost souls of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, the small-town strangeness of Trent Harris’s The Beaver Trilogy
, the autobiographical eccentricities of George Kuchar’s later videos, or the character-collecting impulse behind Andy Warhol and John Waters. But Krulik’s cable-access past may be the key to understanding the roots of his uniquely crafted, person-to-person aesthetic. It taught him to savor those special types who gravitate toward the camera in pursuit of their own rough-hewn self-realization. Once his cable-access wellspring ran dry, he began collecting these characters from the world beyond the studio.
Community TV as a format still exists, but it’s long been overshadowed by the Internet; the rise of online video-sharing systems has democratized television far more than cable ever could. Notably, Krulik himself hasn’t yet achieved a large following from his YouTube channel. Perhaps the attention-grabbing, instant-gratification quality of today’s quick-spreading memes drowns out his more humanist comedy (or maybe he’s just getting started). A TV-trained man who never picked up a film camera, Krulik has, ironically, had more success in theaters. His videos play best to live audiences, not solo Web-crawlers.
Krulik may be public access’s only true success story. He perceived the weird essence of the medium, then moved beyond it. Emerging from that 1980s no-zone, he has been able to create his own brand of television art: documentaries in the service of a unique screwball populism. Before community TV became outstripped by newer technologies, it gave us the obsessed world of Jeff Krulik, a guy who finds something remarkable in the unremarkable and sees everyday people as stars.
An earlier version of this essay was presented as a lecture at Art in General, New York, in January 2008. Quotes from Krulik are taken from records of his public discussions at Anna Helwing Gallery in September 2008 and Light Industry in January 2009, as well as the full text of a 2006 email interview between Krulik and Decibel writer Nick Green, provided by Krulik. Sources on the history of cable access include Independent Video: A Complete Guide to the Physics, Operation, and Application of the New Television for the Student, the Artist and for Community TV by Ken Marsh (1974) and Radical Software magazine. Additional material on the history of Heavy Metal Parking Lot is taken from the video’s official website, maintained by John Heyn.