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Link Dump: #84


This week’s big, cute kitty is from Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures (aka House of Tolerance, L’Apollonide, etc.) It’s kind of like a campus cat, except for a Belle Époque brothel. And now, some (very list-centric) links:

My favorite recent search term has to be “brother sister awkward sex.” Because really, how many other types of brother/sister sex are there? (I also like “status update about fuckers.”)

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Hungry Hungry Death Beds

Was ever a film as inexplicably weird and bad as George Barry’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)? It’s a gory, no-budget venture that never got a proper theatrical release, but lay in obscurity until its DVD release just a few years ago. It has a narrative, but only in the loosest sense of the word; it’s really a stream-of-consciousness series of vignettes about how and who the titular bed eats. Did I mention that it has constant, monotonous voiceover, much of it done by an undead British painter? And that he tells us all about the bed’s ridiculous, demonic origin story?

Yeah, that’s Death Bed for you. Can you see why I was briefly obsessed with this movie in December? During that obsession, I wrote a detailed review, which has just been published at 366 Weird Movies. It’s just so deeply strange in how it’s written, shot, and acted. Strange, and bad. But very, very strange. It has lines like, “She can’t appreciate your clumsy sadism,” and they’re directed at the bed. It has a gangster shooting at the bed in his frantic escape attempt. It has a child’s teddy bear getting digested by the bed, and bleeding. I don’t understand, but I still can’t help loving it. All I can really say is this: what the fuck, George Barry?

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WTF Cinema: Tales from the Quadead Zone

Ashley recently introduced me to the Cinema Snob, an online film reviewer associated with That Guy With The Glasses. The Cinema Snob (aka Brad Jones) talks about movies that are weirder than weird, worse than the worst, the kind of shit that even MST3K wouldn’t touch. This includes foreign knock-offs of American action/sci-fi franchises, superlatively bad monster movies like the infamous Troll 2, and all varieties of -sploitation cinema. Out of all these movies, Tales from the Quadead Zone (1987) is an extreme example, and it’s pretty near the bottom of the barrel. An ultra-cheap horror movie shot on video (or what the Snob calls “Shot on Shiteo”), it just barely qualifies as being a “movie” in the first place. Its writing is uniformly incoherent and the actors somehow make it even harder to understand the plot, while the visuals and sound quality are easily surpassed by your average 1987 video game.

Yet there’s something bizarrely compelling in Quadead Zone‘s non-artistry, and I’d like to tap into this by exposing you, the reader, to the film’s noxious images. It was directed by Chester Novell Turner, who’s even more of an enigma to his fans than The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau. I can only piece together fragments of a biography from various Internet sources (IMDb, Bleeding Skull, and B-Movie Dumpster): Turner was born in 1950, made his first feature film Black Devil Doll from Hell in 1984 (possibly in the Philadelphia area), made Quadead Zone three years later, and supposedly died in a car crash in 1996. It’s surprising that more research hasn’t been done, because Turner turned out some readymade cult classics – two hodgepodges of slasher horror, low-grade exploitation, pornography, blaxploitation, and surrealism – and he was a one-man show. It’d take less time to list the functions that Turner didn’t perform on his two movies. This also makes it clear that he was a universally untalented, but passionate man.

So, with that context, let’s descend into the Quadead Zone itself, which is a half-assed anthology film. It comes complete with a very half-assed framing story, in which a woman (played by Devil Doll star Shirley L. Jones) reads to the ghost of her son Bobby out of the titular book. Between Jones’ strangely detached acting style and the dreadful SFX, you can’t help but read in some kind of incest subtext; wind whooshes through her hair whenever her son speaks, and her eyes close as she listens. The opening really sets up the film’s truly dreamlike atmosphere – and I don’t mean “dreamlike” as in ethereal or magical. I mean dreamlike: disjointed, confusing, and lacking any form of logic or rationality. This movie is like one of those vaguely upsetting dreams where you only remember fragments the morning after.

And of course, I can’t fail to mention the film’s theme song (written and performed, naturally, by Turner himself, with help from his brother Keefe). Like the theme song for Spider Baby, it tries to situate Quadead Zone within the long-standing, Halloween-y tradition of “ghosts and ghouls,” but it’s obvious from the uneven flow of the Turners’ semi-rapping – complete with Keefe’s Cookie Monster impersonation – and the gory, rainbow-colored drawings (by Shirley L. Jones) that serve as the credits’ backdrop that this is something else altogether. Spider Baby was full of sly self-parody; Quadead Zone is more like a mangled imitation. It reminds me of those bizarre Ghanaian movie posters – it’s as if Turner had seen a few minutes of Tales of the Crypt once and thought, “Hey, I can do that.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is a rare cinematic example of outsider art, made possible by advances in video technology. Working totally outside the system, and presumably self-taught, with just a bunch of friends and relatives, Turner made a movie. And man, does it reflect his personal vision! For example, the first vignette, entitled “Food for ?”, proves that he never gave in to conventional storytelling. From what any sane viewer can gather, it’s about a poor family of eight rednecks who only have enough sandwiches to feed four – so every meal devolves into a “survival of the fittest” ritual where the father rings a bell and each family member grabs whatever he or she can get. This makes little enough sense, but then the largest and hungriest brother goes on a bloody shooting spree, and the others barely react. The segment ends with titles superimposed over those who survive the first attack, with fates like “DIED JULY 21 – RIFLE SHOT IN THE HEAD” or “LIVING HIGH ON THE HOG IN WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM.” (The spree killer dies in the “state gas chair” [wtf is a gas chair; those don’t even exist!]… making it uncertain why witness protection is necessary.)

It’s really, really hard to know what we’re supposed to get out of “Food for ?”. That’s not unusual for this movie, but it’s still remarkably disorienting. The family’s behavior is so unrealistic that it feels like this should be a morality tale, but there’s no moral in sight, unless it’s “Poverty and hunger. Violence. Sudden closure.” Quadead Zone doesn’t give us time to chew this over, however, as we’re ushered on to “The Brothers,” the story of Ted Johnson (the Devil Doll himself, Keefe Turner) revenge on his dead brother Fred. While “Food for ?” was mostly about nonsensical action, “The Brothers” is about nonsensical talking. After stealing Fred’s body, Ted and his accomplices Oscar and Moby stand around and talk, and talk, and drink, and talk. This goes on for three minutes, in a 62-minute film. And as soon as his friends leave, Ted begins a monologue to end all monologues.

To be honest, this is probably the most interesting part of the movie. Ted’s wrath as he yells at his brother almost reminds me of a poor man’s Hubert Selby, sprinkled liberally as it is with the words “goddammit” and “sonuvabitch.” Keefe may at times be barely audible over the funereal Casiotone soundtrack, and (as the screenshot above demonstrates) it may all be shot in a really dull, incompetent way, but we still get some raw emotion out of the scene. Ted dresses Fred’s corpse up as a clown and plans to bury him as revenge for, well, everything; Fred’s neon silhouette ghost reinhabits his body, has a protracted fight with Ted while screaming like a banshee synthesizer, and ends up impaling him on a pitchfork. The end.

This, I think, is what’s oddly compelling about Turner’s characters: they have the most fucked-up responses to already fucked-up situations. Is your family playing a sadistic game with its food? Shoot several of them! Did your brother ruin your life and then die? Bury him in your basement wearing a ridiculous outfit! It’s like Edgar Allan Poe by way of John Waters and Jack Hill, then deprived of all funding or talent. With the final segment, we return to Bobby and his mother, and are introduced to Daryl, Bobby’s abusive father, who’s sick of his woman’s son’s-ghost-related fantasies. One more protracted fight later, he lies stabbed to death on the kitchen floor; after a run-in with the police, Bobby’s mother flees to the bathroom to slit her throat . But that’s not the end! No, Bobby’s mother comes back (“21 HRS. LATER”) as another creepy neon ghost outline, and begins reading Bobby the story of everything that just happened to them.

As should be obvious by now, this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill “so-bad-it’s-good” cheapo horror movie. It’s a lot more nightmarish than that. We’ve got three stories in a row about family members brutally murdering each other, concluding with an abused and deluded woman killing herself to join her dead son. I think there might be some deep emotional trauma exorcised here on Turner’s part. Some scenes, like the interminable conversation between Ted and his friends, even remind me of Charles Burnett’s masterpiece of urban realism Killer of Sheep (1977). So yes, this is a really bad horror movie, but could it also be partially about violence, betrayal, and abuse in very real dysfunctional families, represented through fantastical, idiosyncratic images?

Tales from the Quadead Zone just raises so many more questions than it answer. It’s laughable and absurd, but also unforgettable and depressing. It looks like it was made with the smallest amount of skill or thought, but some of its most ridiculous moments stick with you. Like many of my favorite Z-grade rip-offs, it really just shows what one man can do, no matter how little knowledge of filmmaking he has, as long as he’s got some money, some equipment, willing friends and family, and bottomless commitment to the project. Chester Novell Turner clearly had that, and in his short life he produced two films that would definitely be “cult” items if enough people bought into them.

So, have I made you at all curious to see what horrors lie within the Quadead Zone? Someone has uploaded a shitty VHS copy to YouTube, so dive into this hour-long bizarrofest, if you dare. As the theme song says, “If you like your terror adult and strong / welcome here, you can’t go wrong!” Well, CNT, you may not have made a good movie – you may have made a really, truly awful movie – but it’s a movie like no other. We can only assume that your neon ghost is sitting in an ugly room somewhere, telling other ghosts more tales… from the Quadead Zone.

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“I blame society!”: Repo Man and punk satire

[Watch out for spoilers, and for irradiated Chevy Malibus.]

I rewatched Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man (1984) last Thursday, talked about it briefly on a radio show on Friday, and still have some ideas about it that I want to mull over. I first saw it on New Year’s Eve a couple years ago, and an additional viewing reinforces the reasons I enjoy it: its muddled rebellion, its raw charm, its defiance of genre conventions, its je nais sais punk. It earns its “cult” status because it captures in amber a specific moment of cultural history, with all its youthful anger, ideological chaos, and quirky stylistic confusion.

Let it be said: Repo Man is above all a film of its time. This was a time when its star, Emilio Estevez, was about to appear in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, a time when Ronald Reagan was about to be reelected in a landslide, and a time when the Soviet Union had less than a decade left of existence. Sid Vicious, the subject of Cox’s next movie, had died five years earlier; the explosion of the Iran-Contra affair was just around the chronological corner. I may not have been around, but all available clues suggest that the mid-’80s were a prime era of disillusionment, of young people trying to piece back together who they were and what they could believe in. Repo Man‘s Otto (Estevez) is offered no end of solutions, and responds to most of them with an instinctive “Fuck you.”

I recently caught up with The Breakfast Club at last, and the contrast between Estevez’s roles in the two films is startling. The opening quote of the John Hughes film (from David Bowie’s “Changes”) asserts that it’s a movie about “these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds”; throughout the story, the five stereotyped teenagers from suburban Chicago attempt to reconcile their identities, their futures, and their relationships with their parents. In the end, they conclude that the world of high school is tough, and cliques are unfair, but that in each of them is a brain, jock, etc., and they’re not so different after all. Much soul-baring goes on, and it leads to a comfortable set of answers.

Otto, meanwhile, never quite pulls together a coherent question. Unlike his Breakfast Club counterpart, he’s not concerned about whether he’ll grow up to “be like [his] parents,” since they’ve sold out his future for a greasy televangelist’s false promises. (Between Reverend Larry, the television he’s on, and their shared blunt, this scene literalizes a lifestyle based around “opiates of the masses,” akin to Brave New World‘s soma vacations.) Otto’s crisis isn’t that he’ll sink into the shallow, bourgeois mold of his parents, but that he – and by extension, America’s youth – has no older role models who aren’t hypocrites or symbols of crass consumerism.

Early in the film, after an unsatisfying party with his punk friends, Otto walks along railroad tracks, singing Black Flag’s “TV Party“: “We’re just dedicated to our favorite shows! Saturday Night Live, Monday Night Football, Dallas…” The punk creed espoused by the film is that the mass of Americans have been reduced to brain-dead drones – like Otto’s coworker Kevin, who obliviously sings a 7 Up jingle – and that any past ideals have been co-opted by Corporate America. Opportunity knocks, however, in the form of Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a hard-assed old-timer who initiates him through deception into the world of repoing cars. “Repo man is always intense,” explains Bud.

For Otto, the life of a repo man is an alternative to both conformity and punk nihilism. It’s a lifestyle positioned on the edge of the law, a career based on glorified grand theft auto. Bud dresses “kinda square” so that he’s viewed as a detective, and this hints at some of the film’s noir roots (as do references to Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Heat). By joining with Bud and the other repo men, Otto can find some common ground to rest his feet on, even if he shares it with loners from decades past. It’s a chance for him to ply a trade, but a trade that amounts to lying and stealing – the repo men don’t make anything, they take prized possessions away. Theirs is a job that prospers amidst economic decline. Instead of buying into the American dream, Otto gets paid by commission to repossess the dreams of others.

As you’d imagine, many of Repo Man‘s conversations revolve around cars. “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are,” posits Miller, the burnt-out holy fool who hangs around the parking lot; it’s an absurdist epigram whose possible truth informs much of the film’s frantic driving. Due to Miller’s supposed madness, he can question such a mainstay of 20th century American culture, rejecting a fact of life (that is, automotive transportation) that every other character takes for granted. Miller’s crazy idea is even implicitly accepted by the film’s big MacGuffin, a “1964 Chevy Malibu” worth $20,000 if repossessed, which is slowly killing its lobotomized driver. Its trunk contains something (a neutron bomb? Alien corpses?) that vaporizes human bodies in an instant. Through this sci-fi symbol, the film presents us with a deadly quandary: the automobile as both toxic and supremely desirable.

The Chevy Malibu’s many meanings are symptomatic of a beautiful tendency in the film, which is its nonstop allusions to Cold War zeitgeists. Whereas The Breakfast Club‘s teenagers live in a self-contained bubble of angst and alienation, Repo Man is very politically aware (even if its responses to late-Cold War politics are rarely nuanced or coherent). Otto, Bud, and the rest exist in the shadow of the Communist Russia, American involvement in Central America (which would become the subject matter of Cox’s Walker), and the imminent possibility of nuclear annihilation. Wally Cleaver could have easily fit in with the students at John Hughes’ Shermer High School; in Cox’s dystopian Los Angeles, the Cleavers’ family values have been dismantled and found insufficient. To this end, Repo Man also follows a trio of Otto’s old punk friends as they steal cars, pick fights, and hold up convenience stores.

Duke, Debbi, and Archie are human repositories of cultural minutiae, constructing their identities out of what they think rebels are supposed to be. As they roam the city streets, Duke howls, “Let’s go do some crimes!”, and it’s emblematic of how vague their motivations are. Just before their last hold-up, Duke turns to Debbi and proposes that they settle down and have kids – the ultimate concession to bourgeois banality – because “it just seems like the thing to do.” No matter how hard the punk kids try to rebel, they’re too unguided to avoid falling back into these well-worn behavioral scripts. As he’s dying, Duke falls into another: “I blame society.” Otto corrects him: “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” None of them have better excuses sociological excuses than sheer boredom; they’re just borrowing from antiquated images of “juvenile delinquents.” At least Otto’s self-aware enough to realize it.

Ultimately, I see Repo Man as a reaction. Alex Cox surveys an ugly postmodern landscape – both in terms of geographical and media realities – and considers, through Otto, all the ways a teenager could try to find some glimmer of truth in such a world. This world is an amalgamation of recycled ideas and images, from John Ford westerns to film noir, from 1950s sci-fi movies to Weekly World News headlines and conspiracy theories, from the 1950s-’60s glamorization of car culture to Emiliano Zapata, from 1930s gangster movies to drugged-out ex-hippies. And of course, punk rock. For Cox, the streets of Los Angeles – and by extension, the whole southwest – is an appropriately desolate playing field where these icons can be smashed against one another.

“John Wayne was a fag,” states Miller to the disgust of the other repo men. The film deals in this kind of debunking, bringing legends down to size – the same goal as the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Some Americans put their faith in the Scientology-like text of Dioretix, while others pay for bland white containers marked “FOOD” or “BEER.” Repo Man scoffs at them all. It’s a reaction, and largely a rejection of all the lies and stupidity that the youngest generation has had to put up with, manifested repeatedly through satire. It’s not always the most clear-headed of films, but that’s much of the point. It’s a melange of genres, offering many forking paths through a microcosmic naked city, and draped in a meandering adventure saga. Maybe you can see how Repo Man is a clear source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino.

So I think that should suffice as an introduction to Repo Man‘s raucous critiques of western civilization. In many ways, the film resembles Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which plays similar tricks with the cultural baggage of 1950s America, though Repo Man holds together more successfully. I’m still not sure what its moral is, and it might not even have one – it ends with a flagrant deus ex machina wherein Miller’s craziness gives him the edge over everyone. However, it’s endlessly quotable, has a great punk rock soundtrack, and crams its little potshots full of wit, so – as Otto might say – who the fuck cares? Repo Man may be a quirky cult hit, but it’s also an explosive, clever little time bomb of a movie.

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Hungry for Cinema: Eating Raoul

I’m looking for new formats in which to discuss individual films or directors. Haven’t really thought of anything yet. However, I do have a movie to discuss – I watched it last night and, after browsing the Internet, decided that no one’s really talked about it thoroughly enough. So this is my meager attempt to do so.

The movie is Paul Bartel’s cult classic Eating Raoul (1982), a recent purchase I requested for the Carleton library. It’s a very entertaining black comedy about a perversely normal couple named Paul and Mary Bland (played by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) who want to start up their own restaurant, but lack the necessary funds. One thing leads to another, and soon they’re inviting rich perverts up to their apartment, bopping them on the head with a frying pan, then taking their money. But then they team up with a Chicano locksmith/thief (Robert Beltran, later Voyager‘s Chakotay), and things get a little complicated…

The film opens with a very cute credit sequence set to the 1930 song “Exactly Like You,” and followed by an introduction to “Hollywood, California! City of contrast… Here, sex hunger is reflected in every aspect of daily life…” All of these little touches add up to a very disarming atmosphere – sure, it’s about rape and murder, but in a pleasant, nostalgic way. Mary Bland works in a hospital, where she deals with a horny patient; Paul is fired from his job at a liquor store for pushing expensive wines. Their inability to get along with the modern world is a recurring subtext – with their utter disinterest in sex and their fixation on providing high-quality wine and dining, they’re actually pretty weird.

“I don’t mind a little hugging and kissing,” says the prissy Paul after a run-in with a dominatrix, “but that…” In an adorably bizarre twist, the Blands even sleep in separate, adjacent beds – Mary with her stuffed animals, and Paul with his stuffed bottle of wine. It’s such a strange choice, to make a film not about perverts, but about hard-working asexuals who are OK with a little murder now and then (or, as it turns out, every night). It gets especially interesting as the Blands’ scheme introduces them to sex, after a little prompting from Doris the dominatrix.

Their conference with her is unforgettable: she spoon-feeds her baby while explaining to the Blands, “Everybody’s gotta make up his own mind about where to draw the line. Like I personally draw the line at golden showers.” (Sadly, Susan Saiger, who plays Doris, has only had three other screen credits, and none in the past 20 years.) As Mary begins catering to the fantasies of strangers, they find themselves exposed to all sorts of weird fetishes, from a wanna-be Nazi commandant to a Vietnam vet with a sexual grudge against hippies, played by Ed Begley, Jr.

Then Raoul comes in. Robert Beltran plays him brilliantly: he’s dishonest, charismatic, sexually voracious and not exactly shy about it. He’s a man of many rackets, and makes an odd fit as a business partner with the Blands, leading to no end of friction with Paul, and a decided lack of friction with Mary. Paul’s paranoia leads him to stalk Raoul for a day, and later to hire Doris for some undercover work… as you might imagine, hilarity ensues.

But recounting the film’s plot doesn’t really do it justice. While the story’s clashes between very different ideas of the American dream (most of which either involve sex or someone’s death) provide the background for the morbid comedy, it’s the offbeat dialogue by Bartel and Richard Blackburn that make Eating Raoul the spicy treat it is. It’s often absurd and gleefully satirical, taking shots both at the Blands, who just can’t seem to help killing people, and at the swinging, rape-happy world they live in.

As the film’s introduction suggests, this is a world where “the barrier between food and sex has dissolved.” Every act is just about expressing one’s appetites: hot tub orgies, burglary, marijuana use, cooking dinner. Eating Raoul, right up to the titular event and the unexpected ending that follows, is a deliciously sick movie, constantly shifting the targets of its weird sense of humor. I trace a lot of this sensibility back to Bartel’s origins as a student of Roger Corman, for whom he made his directorial debut, Death Race 2000; you can see a lot of similar comedy in such Corman classics as A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), both of which also have well-meaning protagonists who commit mass murder.

While watching Eating Raoul, I was also reminded of other 1980s black comedies, like Basket Case (1982) and Repo Man (1984), both of which also take broad, comical shots at the modern world. I’d be interested in finding other ’80s movies that integrate comedy with horror/sci-fi with such great success. But ultimately, no film can quite pull off what Eating Raoul does so hilariously. I have to give credit to some stand-out supporting players: in addition to Beltran and the multitalented Saiger, the film has appearances by Buck Henry as a lecherous bank employee, and Edie McClurg as an inane swinger who giggles, “We like B&D, but we don’t like S&M. We met at the A&P!”

So I grant that Eating Raoul isn’t for everyone (the same probably goes for most comedies where fetishists are ground into dog food), but it’s about as funny a cinematic exploration of libidinous violence as you’re likely to find. I’ll also mention that the film has been adapted into a stage musical, which seems oddly appropriate. As cult films go, Eating Raoul is both rare and well-done.


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My Favorite Movies: Glen or Glenda

Favorite movies don’t always overlap with the canon of great movies. Sometimes they’re not even good. I wouldn’t call this selection a “guilty pleasure,” really; instead, it’s a movie made with so little talent and so much enthusiasm that I can spend hours pondering its mysteries. It’s Glen or Glenda (1953), the first feature film directed the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. I don’t remember when I first learned of this film. It’s hidden deep within the recesses of my childhood.

Coming from a family of devoted B movie fans, Ed Wood was of course in our pantheon along with Roger Corman, William Castle, and Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame. I saw Plan 9 at any early age (and many, many times since), as well as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. (I think my father was disconcerted by how many times Martin Landau says “fuck.”) And somewhere along the line, I learned that Wood, the reputed “worst director of all time,” had made a movie about crossdressers. Some years ago, I turned up a DVD copy at the public library; my initial response was a mix of amazement, shock, and some third adjective involving surprise at the film’s low quality. Plenty more viewings would follow.

Glen or Glenda is a curious animal. On the one hand, it follows in the long tradition of classical exploitation filmmaking: movies made starting after WWI that pretend to educate while attempting to titillate. Glenda producer George Weiss had already attached his name to such movies as Test Tube Babies and Racket Girls, the latter of which has been in MST3K, and is probably the least sexy movie about female wrestling. Glen or Glenda was intended follow in this long-standing mold by ostensibly telling the public about sex-change operations while actually providing a teasing glimpse of taboo sexuality. All the trappings are visible, but with Wood at the helm, the film took off in several very strange directions at once.

Initially, Glen or Glenda looks like your usual exploitation movie. It has a topic, its selling point, and it’s even got what Eric Schaefer (writing in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films) calls the “square up”: the title card at the beginning justifying its existence, and warning that “this is a picture of stark realism”—generally code for “There might be some stock footage of a woman giving birth that shows her vagina.” However, for reasons unknown to anyone, the film then jumps to an aged, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi sitting in a room full of skeletons and holding a book. His incomprehensible, long-winded monologue, all delivered in Lugosi’s inimitable Hungarian drawl, sets up the unpredictable, inexplicable structure of what is to come.

As Lugosi’s monologue demonstrates, it’s largely Wood’s script which keeps this from being just another bad exploitation movie. His dialogue is often redundant, usually stilted, and never good, yet grows increasingly strange, as if Wood had been drifting in and out of touch with reality (and the art of writing) while creating it. Similarly, the narrative as a whole makes stabs at being conventional, but consistently misses its mark, as if Wood’s internal compass were driving him toward the avant-garde.

Sure, a story starts up: a transvestite named Patrick commits suicide, a dim-witted police inspector goes to talk with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist launches into the usual “Let me tell you a story…” spiel that frames many exploitation films, Reefer Madness being a well-known example. But no sooner does he attempt to narrate the life of Glen/Glenda than Bela interrupts, signaled (as always) by a flash of stock footage lightning, and begins commenting on the psychiatrist in the vaguest terms possible: “There is no mistaking the thoughts in man’s mind… the story is begun…”

Lugosi’s presence is one of the film’s true mysteries. The obvious answer is that Wood was friends with Lugosi, and wanted to give the ailing veteran some work. Furthermore, Lugosi’s (somewhat faded) star power could potentially lend the movie some slight mainstream credibility; hell, he gets top billing. Even so, why locate him so undecipherably within the movie, intruding on the actual narrative, and generally making the entire film inaccessible to ordinary moviegoers? Both his dialogue and milieu feel drawn from another, even weirder movie, perhaps some uneasy mesh of fatalism, mysticism, and mad science.

Even without Lugosi, Glen or Glenda would be an outlier among exploitation films. Not only does it deviate heavily from its intended sex-change subject matter, but at times it feels uncertain what its subject matter is. Transvestites, or modern man’s inability to overcome destiny (albeit phrased much less coherently)? While most exploitation films let their morality tale plots flow unhindered, the psychiatrist frequently stops his own story to meditate on sexuality and tolerance. At one point, Glen visits his friend Johnny for advice, and Johnny tells his story, within a story, within a story.

All of this is exacerbated by the production values, which are even lower than those in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9. During the psychiatrist’s digressions, the film resorts to merely suggesting the existence of a set: a sign reading “BUS STOP” indicates a bus stop, and a water cooler evokes an office. Wood’s extreme dependence on stock footage also has its consequences: many scenes are reduced to voiceovers underscored by the same few seconds of cars on a freeway, or people on a busy sidewalk, and over a minute and a half of the Alan/Anne story consists of WWII battle footage (this, in a film that’s barely an hour long). Other uses are total non sequiturs, most infamously the buffalo herd stampeding while Lugosi chants, “Pull the string!”

Granted, pointing out badness in an Ed Wood movie may be like shooting poorly executed scenes in a barrel, but I think these examples help show why this movie is worth all the attention I give it. Many of these creative choices weren’t just bad, but unnecessary, and not really justifiable. I’d say this willingness to do the wrong thing, even if the only effect is undercutting traditional narrative cinema, sets Wood apart from the bulk of exploitation craftsmen, who were content merely to film their hackneyed story and maybe inject it with a few minutes of burlesque shows.

Glen or Glenda does have the requisite burlesque padding—inserted, may I add, right in the middle of the movie, with no narrative context whatsoever—but it has so much more going on that the drawn-out stripteases and softcore bondage porn feel like an interruption from the normal outside world of ’50s sleaze, in opposition to the ascended gibberish Wood’s been serving up. This padding is also sandwiched inside Glen/Glenda’s nightmare, the point in the movie where the main narrative (the psychiatrist’s story) intersects with the oneiric horror movie atmosphere of the Lugosi interludes.

This is a movie that takes its subconscious’s noctural soliloquies and puts them on the surface for the audience for the audience to puzzle over. During the nightmare sequence, both the visuals and the sinister, cackling dialogue become completely opaque, and you wonder, if this was transcribed and psychoanalyzed, would some new truth about gender identity be revealed? Or is there no meaning, just intimations toward one? Also, is that guy the devil?

It really is a movie brimming with mysteries, possibly wrapped in additional riddles and enigmas. Its incessantly tangential structure doesn’t help, as the movie repeatedly doubles back on itself, leading the viewer down stories and lines of argument that look eerily familiar. A few salient points can be gleaned from these many approaches, however, and the clearest of these is a plea for tolerance. Ultimately, this is a movie rooted in autobiography and personal interest—Wood’s own transvestism. And it’s remarkably progressive, in its own surreal way, asking (sometimes) for an acceptance of all gender and sexual identities.

Admittedly, the film does make more than a few self-contradictory statements and engages in some obviously false reasoning, but what emerges from the majority of the viewpoints presented is an internal consensus: if a man feels more comfortable in woman’s clothes (or a woman’s body) then those options should be available to him. (Unsurprisingly, female transvestites and transsexuals aren’t even considered.) The film’s one mention of homosexuals comes when the psychiatrist specifies that Glen is not one, but it’s not a condemnation by any means, itself a minor triumph for an era when the word “homosexual” was verboten in mainstream cinema.

Of course, Glen or Glenda doesn’t even come close to being a systematic or intelligible defense of transvestism, but that’s hardly its purpose. Instead, I see it as Ed Wood personally expressing, under the only circumstances he could, his feelings about crossdressing and gender identity. And amid a flurry of hysterical expressionism, he manages to say that people should accept ideas even if they seem strange at first. If Ed Wood had had a shred of talent or artistry, he might’ve been Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger. But he didn’t, thank God, and thus he was Ed Wood. With its indecisively multifaceted narrative, its manic mix of genres and messages, and its wildly idiosyncratic take on human sexuality, Glen or Glenda is one of my favorite movies.


Filed under Cinema, Media, Sexuality

Goy’s teeth and sensual daydreams

So, after a Thanksgiving week spent in suburban squalor, I am back at Carleton to act as the Cinema & Media Studies office assistant for three weeks. Mostly, this involves receiving mail, filing applications, and inventorying movies for 6 hours a day. [Note: Ashley suggests I wear “sensible, yet stylish heels and a pencil skirt” for my secretarial duties; if anyone wants to go back to 1959 and fetch those for me, I’d be more than willing to oblige.] Plus, I have to make my own food for once in my life. Eek! My computer was tragically damaged on the way down here so now the monitor’s pretty brutally fucked up, but I will blog on nonetheless in an attempt to remedy my absence.

So first of all: I had a number of fun cinematic experiences in the past week. Most of them involved me being cuddled up next to my DVD player watching great movies like The Wind (1928) or Brief Encounter (1945), but two actually required me to visit a theater and pay for a ticket. The first of these was the Coen Bros.’ latest film, A Serious Man, which I’m still trying to puzzle out. Are the filmmakers sadistic or sympathetic? Does their universe contain even the slightest glimmer of hope?

I won’t spoil anything since Ashley hasn’t seen the movie yet (and is pissed about it), but A Serious Man is basically about Larry Gopnick, a Jewish physics professor living with his family (a wife, son, and daughter, each dysfunctional in their own way) in late-’60s suburban Minnesota. At first everything seems superficially fine, but then everything pretty much starts going to hell, all at once. The Coens are no strangers to tormented Minnesotans – see William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, fielding viciously bureaucratic phone calls just like Larry does throughout A Serious Man. The big differences here are the personal and religious elements.

While Fargo was based on a true story of violence and local color that never really happened, A Serious Man is steeped in a milieu that did happen, to the Coens themselves – i.e., growing up Jewish in St. Louis Park in the ’60s. (Worth noting that Joel and Ethan would’ve been about 13 and 10 respectively when the film takes place.) In this regard, I think you could view A Serious Man as akin to Woody Allen’s Radio Days or Spike Lee’s Crooklyn; the director’s fondly (or in this case, brutally) nostalgic return to childhood roots.

Then there’s the Jewishness, which stretches into every corner of the film, glazed over with a layer of Coen quirkiness, whether we’re talking about the prologue’s beautiful recreation of shtetl life or the kafkaesque visits to increasingly unhelpful rabbis who mark the film’s progress. Woody Allen’s protagonists just crack wise about perceived anti-Semitism; a Coens protagonist has a deeply disturbing yet oddly funny nightmare about it. (OK, maybe Allen does too, if you count the monks-with-crosses dream from Bananas…) Similarly, one of the best parts of the film is probably the story of the Goy’s Teeth, simply because it’s so weird, so very Jewish, and manages to sum up film’s major themes in a few short, bewildering minutes.

I don’t think enough time has passed yet for me to determine where this film stands in the Coens’ filmography, let alone in film altogether. But I do think it’s a great direction for them to go in – we’ve got the same dark oddball humor as The Big Lebowski, only toned down to match the film’s evocations of a real time and place in its colors and characters. For example, instead of a hair-trigger Vietnam vet, we get a slightly autistic brother with a sebaceous cyst. The one aspect that’s been ramped up is the torturous ambiguity of the ending: if you’ve seen Barton Fink or No Country for Old Men, you know what to expect, only count on more.

This film has been frequently described as the Coens’ retelling of the story of Job. I’d go one step further and apply it to the whole Old Testament. Larry Gopnick wanders around the desert, falls to his knees, asks, “Why me, lord? Why me?” What answer does he get? You’ll have to see the movie to find (and even then, good luck), but let me say that familiarity with the poetry of Stephen Crane couldn’t hurt. Also, special kudos to Fred Melamed, who plays Sy Ableman. At least in my eyes, he’ll probably be 2009’s Best Supporting Actor.

The other, possibly even more amazing, film-related experience of the weekend was seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Minneapolis’s Uptown Theater on Saturday night. I love pondering the Rocky Horror phenomenon – why should this weird, gleefully perverted ’70s rock musical-cum-tribute to Poverty Row B movies be so wildly popular among nerdily obsessive audiences who treat it like the Second Coming of Halloween? Or did I just answer my own question? (Note: I am myself a member of said nerdily obsessive audience, as is Ashley.)

If you’re not familiar with the cult of Rocky Horror, you can familiarize yourself at rockyhorror.org; basically, fans will dress up as characters (Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter is understandably a favorite), reenact the movie while it plays on-screen (which the talented troupe Transvestite Soup did last Saturday), shout at the characters on-screen (e.g., calling Brad an asshole every time he introduces himself), and throw things! (Rice, toilet paper, playing cards…) That’s the gist of it.

Better yet? It’s lots of fun! Granted, many people do it with more than a little chemical alteration, but I’ve seen the play and movie sober, and enjoyed myself greatly. I think a lot of it has to do with the breaking down of barriers, the cutting loose of inhibitions encouraged by both the film and its surrounding cult. For example, “virgins” are required to make a twisted Pledge of Allegiance which concludes,

…and to the decadance for which it stands,
One movie, under Richard O’Brien,
With sensual daydreams and erotic nightmares for all!

These sentiments – in praise of decadents, tolerance, and freely exploring fantasies – are echoed in Transvestite Soup‘s mission statement:

…to all other freaks, punks, Goths, Christians, pagans, gays, straights, misc., hippies, normals, whatever you are,
that here shall be a place where fun and humor rule supreme…

I think this is part of Rocky Horror‘s beauty, and maybe why so many flock to it – that is, so many of the people who’d be going to a midnight movie anyway. I mean, wasn’t the original cult/midnight movie Freaks, a similarly bizarre movie all about rejecting normality while embracing deformity and weirdness in all their forms? At least until its (very perplexing) finale, this is what Rocky Horror proclaims, too, through the desire-driven character of Frank-N-Furter, who sings, “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure!” as he and the other cast members swim orgiastically, draped in soaking lingerie.

So this, at least to me, is a large part of the appeal: it’s freedom, it’s acceptance, it really is Halloween all over again. In his It’s a Bird – a semiautobiographical meditation on Superman in graphic novel form, much of which deals with Superman’s relationship to the Other – Steven Seagle tells about an unpopular kid who dresses as Superman for Halloween. All of a sudden, he’s popular for a day. So naturally he decides to dress as Superman the next day. He’s promptly picked on and told to change his clothes.

I think the connection to Rocky Horror should be pretty clear: that theater is a self-contained world where no one will ever tell you to change your clothes (unless they’re being “a bitch,” as Carleton’s production of  the stage musical put it). It’s also a world without homophobia, or transphobia, or heteronormative discrimination of any kind – because what’s cooler than being a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transsylvania, at least while you’re watching Tim Curry sashay up and down that carpet? And what’s wrong with being at least a little – if not a lot – attracted to him, or the other fishnet-clad men (or women, or those who aren’t quite sure!) around you?

This is why I think Rocky Horror is more than just some goofy little ritual, and why so many people take it so seriously (which, at the same time, means taking it very lightly): it’s not just a case of another “so bad it’s good” movie you can get some laughs out of. It’s a campy, sequined, madness-drenched romp with a new motto advocating sexual exploration at every turn. And if you can get all that with a live, enthusiastic audience doing the Time Warp in the aisles – what more can you ask for? God bless Lili St. Cyr, and God bless Richard O’Brien.


ith sensuous daydreams and erotic nightmares for all!

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