The El Duce Tapes: Troll Hunting, by Alexander Miller
Where does someone like El Duce fit in today’s society? What could we possibly gain from the exploits of a slovenly shock-rocker, whose coined the term “rape rock” to describe his group, The Mentors, whose songs mostly celebrate degrading women with titles like “Free Fix for a Fuck,” “Clap Queen” and the infamous “Golden Showers,” popularized further thanks to the protests of the PMRC but more on that later.
Born Eldon Hoke, El Duce was something of a contemporary to the likes of GG Allin (another morally reprehensible figure in the world of punk) whose reputations stem from their controversial music and personas. El Duce gained infamy from his group’s provocative songs and performances. He and his bandmates, sporting executioners hoods would appear on talk shows, rattling off rape jokes, soaking up all the gasps, boos, cheers and jeers like gleeful children; group effort aside, you could tell El Duce was the driving force behind it all.
Despite a cult following of admirers in the punk scene and some notoriety for their offensive material, El Duce went out like most hard-partying rockers, dying young back in 1997 after drunkenly falling onto some train tracks.
So once again, where does someone like El Duce factor in today’s society? What can we possibly glean from the sojourns of a self-destructive, sleazoid who prided himself on degrading women, and spewing ignorant hate-speech?
Luckily, for our sakes, this is where Rodney Ascher and co-director David Lawrence step in. Ascher has etched a unique place in contemporary filmmaking, finding his voice through the back avenues of media culture, whether it’s a collection of people haunted by the Screen Gems logo in “The S from Hell,” the manifold conspiracy theories and varied experiences surrounding Kubrick’s The Shining in Room 237 or the terrifying realizations of sleep paralysis testimonials in The Nightmare.
From the outset, The El Duce Tapes seems like a relative departure from his previous works. Cobbled from a vault of never before seen tapes filmed by young actor Ryan Sexton (who discovered the Duce-meister one-day, passed-out in his bushes) recorded hours of El Duce’s life. Interviewing his bandmates, family, friends, a girlfriend, members from other groups (namely Gwar), tourmates along with live performances from The Mentors. Initially setting out to make a short film, Sexton kept his camcorders rolling and accumulated a massive collection of videos, that is until we’re warned: “one day he was forced to stop.”
These tapes haven’t seen the light of day for over 25 years. After pulling them out of a storage unit, with the hard work of Ascher and Lawrence, The El Duce Tapes was born. Incorporating clips from movies, talk shows, music videos, newscasts, concerts, TV shows, and various stock media, Rodney Ascher deftly weaves a clever and sometimes poignant multimedia mosaic-serving as a springboard for ironic juxtaposition and skillfully conceived editing techniques. There’s a spontaneity that lends the film a crackling sense of shrewd observation that partially obscures the objective/subjective gaze often associated with documentary filmmaking. At several times El Duce is contradicting himself, throughout he’s sieg heiling, driveling racist rhetoric. However, he sounds off about his black friends and that he won’t play a gig for some white power movement. There’s spliced-in clips from the “Springtime for Hitler” scene from the 1967 The Producers alongside footage recalling the climate of jingoist intolerance ushered in during the Reagan/Bush years. And his idea for what he calls “A Berlin Wall” at the US/Mexico border immediately conjures up the modicum of blathering from our current president.
The crisscrossing tonal edits perfectly align with the inane spouting of El Duce; his “politics” are, like so much of his persona, revealed to be nothing beyond that of an immature provocateur. And the import of his varied ramblings seem to rely on how drunk El Duce was at the time of recording. At times, he postures himself as a dangerous, predatory misogynist; all the while there’s a childish quality revealing an aimless instigator without any consistent ideals.
There are moments of clarity amid the backwash of 40-ounce malt liquor-swilling. Hoke recalls his abusive upbringing. His disdain for his father, an engineer at Boeing where he was an agent in destruction by constructing bouncing napalm bombs that were dropped in Vietnam. There’s a jolt of lucidity when Hoke shares the cycle of his father’s physical abuse. He’s gabbing with this chirpy veneer, revealing a manic facade as we realize Eldon Hoke is about to break, there’s these sympathetic pit stops that really lends the film a glint of objective distinction providing a quality of depth to the subject. It would be easy to write-off Hoke, but there’s more to the story, and in the best sense of documentary filmmaking Ascher & Lawrence provide unseen and unrevealed dimensions of their subject.
There’s a quality to The El Duce Tapes that feels like a found-footage horror film that’s also an essay on the layered misogyny and racism that precipitated Reagan’s America and that dually emphasizes the resurgence of those attitudes in our current society.
The imagery associated with a vault of lost videos that have been hidden away for decades has the evocative dread of a creepypasta or an item you’d find on the dark web; at certain junctures this sincerely feels like a horror movie.
The retro-tech horror stylings of Ascher, with another brilliant score from Jonathan Snipes (who scored his two previous features), flourish in that they simultaneously create a multidimensional atmosphere of investigative metacommentary and cultural observation. The narrative spike arrives when we realize that El Duce, under the layers, is basically a proto-troll. Someone stirring the pot for the sake of stirring up shit, it worked in the eighties, with the PMRC catapulting The Mentors from hole-in-the-wall venues to auditoriums. Then, going on talk shows, getting airtime on national television, or tricking directors (Nick Broomfield) to fall for his claims that he was an agent in the death of Kurt Cobain. But, here we are, over twenty years since his death, and we’re still talking about him.
Just like an out of control child (which he was, as we learn from the film), El Duce didn’t care if he received positive or negative attention. And now, with internet trolls, the incels, and the massive reach of social media, we can see that El Duce would have fit in just fine in 2020. What a wonderful world we live in…