Tag Archives: exploitation

Mad Science

The second I heard about the “Camp & Cult Blogathon” being hosted by Stacia at She Blogged By Night, I knew what I wanted to write about. Because Maniac (1934), aka Sex Maniac, is perhaps the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen. Watching it is like entering a trance. Directed by Dwain Esper, the exploitation filmmaker behind titles like Marihuana and Sex Madness, Maniac is no mere movie; it’s a cri de coeur against structure and restraint. Not one of its 50 frenzied minutes is anything less than outrageously loony.

The plot? It is labyrinthine, and thinking too hard about it leaves me woozy. Roughly: vaudevillian Don Maxwell, moonlighting as a lab assistant, kills a hubris-addled scientist and assumes his identity. Police investigate; corpses walk; the actor grows increasingly paranoid. Peripheral characters deliver halting monologues. One jaw-dropping, Poe-pilfering set piece follows another. And finally, with only a few minutes left, Esper and screenwriter Hildegarde Stadie (his wife) introduce an out-of-nowhere subplot featuring Don’s estranged showgirl wife, an inheritance left by his rich uncle, etc., etc. THE END.

About a dozen horror movies’ worth of plot is squeezed into Maniac, all of it told at breakneck speed and maximum volume. Dialogue isn’t spoken so much as hyperventilated. No one seems to have an inside voice—like Horace Carpenter, who plays the mad Dr. Meirschultz by howling every single one of his lines, and who literally beats his chest when Don disappoints him. “Coward!” he sobs. “Oh you fool!” Histrionic is the default here, with each performance more mannered and exaggerated than the last.

Well, except for the INLAND EMPIRE-esque chorus girls who turn up at the end, lounging around a hotel room and cracking wise. They behave just like actresses in a conventional 1930s B-movie. Although their conversations are a little strange: one girl describes homelessness as “sinking your weary bones into the soft recesses of some park bench”; another jokes about the Greek philosopher Diogenes; and a third girl mocks a sucker in a newspaper article by laughing, “His head must be a jelly bean instead of what they thought it was!” Evocative, puzzling, both? Maniac positively bulges with writing like this.

Or like this:

Stealing through my body… creeping through my veins… pouring in my blood! Ohhh, darts of fire in my brain! Stabbing me. Agony! I can’t stand it, this torture, this torment! I can’t stand it! I won’t! I wo— [incoherent ape noises]

These lines are screamed by Buckley, a patient of Meirschultz who thinks he’s a killer orangutan, after he’s injected with “super adrenaline.” And this hysterical, stream-of-consciousness rant is only one of Maniac’s many grotesque spectacles. To wit:

  • Immediately after Buckley’s rant, a once-dead woman appears from behind a screen. Buckley abducts her, runs off into the wilderness, and exposes her breasts.
  • Don decides that a black cat named Satan has “the gleam” in his eye. He catches it, then gouges out and eats one of its eyes onscreen. (This, after Satan knocks Meirschultz’s artificial heart onto the floor and nibbles on it.)
  • A jocular neighbor explains the workings of the cat-and-rat farm in his backyard: “The rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”
  • More breasts are exposed.
  • Don manipulates his and Buckley’s respective wives into fighting each other with syringes. Meanwhile, a frog hops around the basement.
  • Jailed, Don moans that he “only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” but has now “spent [his] whole life perfecting an act that no one wanted.”

The causal connective tissue between these incidents is minimal. At times, their chronology feels totally arbitrary, as if the whole movie was a loose, nightmarish clip reel. This impression is magnified by the “educational” title cards that occasionally break up the flow of the film, dry lectures on mental illness with headings like “DEMENTIA PRAECOX” or “MANIC-DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSES.” In keeping with exploitation film formula, these are meant to excuse Maniac’s excesses. See? they say. This [prurient, horrifying] movie’s performing a public service!

However, since the information in the title cards is now 100% outdated and had only the most tenuous link to the rest of the movie in the first place, they instead come across as a proto-Godardian distancing device, existing only to further disrupt an already fragmented narrative. You read that right: Maniac is surprisingly avant-garde, though it’s unclear how much of the film’s demented style is a function of low budgets, tight schedules, and bad actors vs. Esper and Stadie intentionally crafting a Dada-horror fever dream. One image in particular, of Don and Meirschultz massaging a dead woman’s limbs in a cavernous morgue, even struck me as something right out of Jean Cocteau. (Or, by the same token, Ed Wood.)

This isn’t to say that Maniac is sophisticated or poetic. On the contrary, it’s crude trash. But trash can be experimental too. In all its gory, convoluted melodrama, Maniac is exactly as powerful as it is risible. Every unanswered question—Why do they talk like that? Why did he do that? Where did she come from?—and every one-of-a-kind act of violence sticks like a burr in your brain. Every non sequitur, bizarre inflection, and over-the-top cackle helps explain why Maniac makes such a deserving cult object, even if doesn’t have much in the way of an actual cult. This is exploitation cinema at its most transgressive.

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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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Spider Baby: black comedy and cannibal children

[I wrote the following as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like degenerative mental illness in a heavily inbred family.]

The film is called Spider Baby, depending on who you ask. Some may prefer The Maddest Story Ever Told, while others may go with Cannibal Orgy. These titles already give you a glimpse of the film’s true nature: excessive, sensational, manic. It’s an ultra-low-budget B-movie with the best of them, for sure. But while lots of the ’60s horror movies I’ve sat through have been slow, grainy exercises in dullness, Spider Baby takes off into high gear from the first few seconds. Hell, the opening credits, sung by Lon Fuckin’ Chaney, Jr., give you a taste of totally absurd, campy horror that tops some feature-length films.

Cannibal spiders creep and crawl
Boys and ghouls having a ball
Frankenstein, Dracula and even the Mummy
Are sure to end up in someone’s tummy

Spider Baby is an unexpectedly self-aware movie, as its theme song casually references the horror movie tropes about to be employed. Even if Chaney was a friendless alcoholic nearing the end of his life as he sang it (at least according to interviews I’ve read), this opening is nonetheless infused with a strange sense of fun, and the filmmakers’ knowledge that they’re about to dollop out some tricks and treats. But not even the invocation of all these past monster movie muses can prepare the viewer for the bizarrerie that follows. The song is just a stream-of-consciousness gateway to the abyss.

In true horror movie style, the story is prefaced by an official-sounding monologue. A man sitting comfortably in what looks to be a den introduces the Merrye family and their namesake syndrome, both of which he claims were wiped out 10 years ago. This, we later learn, is Peter, who with his sister Emily, their lawyer Mr. Schlocker, and his pretty assistant Ann, have come to take possession of the Merrye household. However, they’re opposed by the Merrye children – the childlike, knife-wielding Elizabeth and Virginia, and the large but animalistic Ralph (Sid Haig) – and their paternal chauffeur, Bruno (Chaney). Herein lies the film’s driving conflict, but it’s one which is never expressed in anything but the most unpredictable and off-putting ways.

And before any of that can happen, we enter the Merrye estate alongside a courier played by Mantan Moreland, a black actor best-known for his bug-eyed, broadly comic, racially stereotyped roles in 1940s comedies and Charlie Chan movies. Moreland’s brief performance raises the possibility that this will be a light, jokey horror-comedy. Then he’s attacked, mutilated, and murdered by Virginia, who insists it was all part of her “spider” game. When we dolly in on his ear, which drops lightly to the floor, we realize it won’t be that kind of movie – yet the levity continues as Moreland flails in the window, and when Elizabeth walks in on the scene, she plays the big sister, acting as if Virginia’s been leaving her roller skates sitting around. This radical dissonance between the onscreen violence and the characters’ reactions is just an initial sample of the film’s perverse humor.

Writer-director Jack Hill, a purveyor of cult favorites who’d go on to direct Pam Grier in Coffy and Foxy Brown, delights in sick jokes like this. A skinned cat is passed off as rabbit for the Merryes’ hungry guests, and as Virginia’s spider psychosis threatens addition lives, strains of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” punctuate the soundtrack. Hill plays similar games with audience sympathies: we pity the Merryes, whose “happy” family and way of life is about to be interrupted, but that doesn’t keep us from screaming “Don’t go in there!” as Schlocker investigates the house. Schlocker is a bureaucratic slimeball, sure, complete with an omnipresent cigar, but Hill still compels us to worry for him. The kids, of course, are never in any real danger – they’re the source of the horror. In case it’s not clear, this is an intentionally confounding movie.

The greatest object of our pity, anyway, is poor Bruno. Although he shields and enables murder after murder. He’s an anti-hero in the mold of Seymour from The Little Shop of Horrors: stuck in a bind (a promise he made to the children’s dying father), he believes it’s his responsibility to protect this brood of psychotic cannibals, as well as their aunt and uncle (who dwell in a pit in the basement… it’s that kind of movie). Since Bruno doesn’t actually kill anyone on his own, it’s easy to feel sorry for him, and his final decision – to enact an explosive mercy killing – hails back to the pathos at the end of Of Mice and Men. (Chaney played Lenny in a 1939 film version, opposite Burgess Meredith.) Chaney, never an especially subtle actor, still brings all of his conflicted devotion to the role of Bruno, and is the emotional cornerstone of the film.

But nothing can top the performances of Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner (neither of whom had much of a career outside of this) as Elizabeth and Virginia. All good horror fans know that children are evil. But who knew children could be this evil? They’re especially effective because they don’t seem aware of their sadistic, homicidal natures; they just act like little kids, and Virginia talks about her spider game as innocuously as if it were jump rope. They’re as fickle, irrational, and lacking in self-control as real children – they’re pure id. (It’s worth noting that during production, Washburn and Banner were about 21 and 18, respectively.) The civilized intruders don’t even appear to notice the giggling, rosy-cheeked menaces right under their noses. And by the time they do, it’s too late.

Spider Baby is a pretty audacious horror movie in how it brings four “normal” people into an obviously, outrageously abnormal situation, and shows them relatively at ease in it, a juxtaposition that would feel at home in a Luis Buñuel movie. It’s also a haunted house movie par excellence, but extends the usual twists to the point of hyperbole. Psycho had one jittery motel owner with some stuffed birds and his mother’s preserved corpse saved for the big final scare. Spider Baby has a jittery chauffeur, three psychos in plain sight, two more downstairs, birds mounted randomly on the wall, and the father’s skeleton revealed still in his bed halfway through the film. At 81 minutes, it wastes no time, ramping up each successive scare into more and more over-the-top territory – and considering the minimal resources and $65,000 budget, that’s damn impressive.

So what to make of Spider Baby? It’s far better and more interesting than I expected. The title smacks of cheesy, ridiculous, low-budget schlock, and while these words all applicable to varying degrees, it’s also a seriously scary and fucked-up movie. The Maddest Story Ever Told isn’t just one of those comically superfluous subtitles; it’s a surprisingly accurate description of the film’s ambitions. And the moniker “spider baby” can be applied not only to Virginia, who gleefully catches “bugs” in her web of innocence, but to Peter and Ann’s child as seen in the disturbing epilogue (with one of the best-deserved “THE END?” twists of all time). In this final scene, the film thrusts all of its bloody depravity and wicked humor in the face of 1960s Middle America and its petty little dreams. Even after the climactic destruction of the haunted house, the movie cunningly says, the horror may live on in quiet suburban backyards. And that’s scary.

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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.

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The Ingloury of Basterdom

The baseball bat: an apt symbol for the level of subtlety in Inglourious Basterds

Well, my mind is newly filled with cultural jelly, and so I’m ready to talk about a few topics. Where to start? Well, for one, last night I went and saw Quentin Tarantino’s new film Inglourious Basterds. My attitude toward Tarantino is basically this: his films are hip (though actively, aggressively hip; not laid-back hip like Jarmusch), cool, fun, sexy (Uma), etc. They’re also fairly, albeit superficially, intelligent, self-reflexive, and knee-deep in homage (especially to his pet subjects – Godard, kung fu movies, blaxploitation, and spaghetti westerns). I think highly of him as a maker of funny, blatantly postmodern films; however, I don’t exactly think he’s breaking new ground. More like reshuffling old soil. As I read in Paul Schrader’s essay “Canon Fodder“:

It’s been said assemblage is the art form of the 20th century and Joseph Cornell its Godfather. If so, Tarantino is its Michael Corleone.

My point is that what I gathered from Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and the Kill Bill duology was further confirmed by Inglourious Basterds: these are cool, neatly stylized movies, but don’t go digging too deep. I think the phrase “all flash, no substance” becomes very appropriate. Just take the example of Basterds. We’ve got two parallel plots: one about a group of gung ho Nazi killers led by Brad Pitt whose main drive, ambition, and desire is to “kill [and scalp] Nazzies”; the other is about a Jewish escapee running a movie theater in Paris. The Nazi killers kill a lot of Nazis, the Jewish woman orchestrates a massive (and strangely undetected) revenge plot, and it all ends with lots & lots of fire, shooting, and Nazi deaths. Including gratuitous shots of Hitler’s face being machine-gunned.

So what do we take away from this? Is there much to discuss (as there is with the book I’m reading, Art Spiegelman’s Maus) about the conflict of good and evil in WWII, or the Nazi attitude toward and treatment of the Jews? Can we learn something about our perceptions of history – how it could have turned out vs. how it really did? Or is the most likely initial impression, “He carved a swastika into that guy’s forehead! Awesome!”? You want a high-class brand of mindless escapism that does some thrilling tricks with the hoary war movie genre? You got it. But I still don’t recommend Inglourious Basterds very highly. It’s just a question of what you want out of your movie. E.g., despite the often jarring presences of race- and gender-based conflict in his films, Tarantino never really seems obliged to say anything about them. He retools stereotypes, but at the end of the day it’s still because “the ass-kicking black chick is cool” or “Uma Thurman’s feet turn me on” (Basterds also has its fair share of QT foot fetishism).

There’s a sequence in Basterds that made me think maybe Tarantino had seen Ms. 45 a few too many times (though I can’t say for sure if it’s an actual influence on him, it wouldn’t surprise me), and I think this could be indicative of part of the problem: yes, exploitation can be cool and informative, as I indulge every time I watch Sex Madness or some other shitty opus. And so yes, it’s fun to make a self-conscious homage to exploitation. But at the end of the day, it’s still self-conscious exploitation, stuck in a netherworld between actual exploitation and an actually thoughtful, meaningful movie. So that’s, for now, what I have to say about Mr. Tarantino.

Out of the other subjects to address: a couple weeks ago I rewatched that great classic-among-classics, Casablanca (see, the title even sounds like the word “classic”). And one aspect of the film to which I paid especially close attention was Claude Rains’ performance as Captain Renault, a character who’s described as “amoral” even in the intro paragraph of Rains’ Wikipedia page. Now first, Rains himself: amazingly versatile, moved between leading and character parts in a huge number of films across decades.

He could be a great villain, or a great hero. He was the original invisible man (a part that showed off his voice, which was capable of rapidly going from dignified to menacing); he was the corrupted senior senator Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (his attempted suicide at the end always brings a tear to my eye); and of course he was Sebastian, the mother-dependent but sympathetic Nazi villain of Hitchcock’s Notorious. He could be a supportive friend, as in Now, Voyager or an overbearing father like in The Wolf Man and Kings Row. Or he could be an ineffectual, sleazy, and easily amused officer of the law as he was in Casablanca.

Captain Renault (Claude Rains) opposite Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)

I’m running out of time, so I’m afraid I can’t do justice to his performance and the beautiful balances and flourishes it adds to the movie. Rains has a very light touch here; his character’s snide quips give the film a levity it might have lacked if Bogart were left to brood alone. The city of Casablanca is, among other things, an absurd place, and Renault is a man who recognizes the absurdity and gives in to it. From his position of meager authority (a Vichy official being perpetually overruled by the Germans), he practically runs an industry of delightedly taking bribes from young ladies (with some undisclosed added benefits). One of my favorite parts is when a young woman tells Rick she’s about to give herself to Renault, and the following exchange ensues:

Woman: My husband is with me, too.

Rick: He is? Well, Captain Renault’s getting broadminded.

That’s right: even Casablanca has a pretty clear (yet still under the radar) reference to Renault’s bisexuality. And, after all, Casablanca is a mixed-up town full of people escaping from the brand of normality imposed by the Nazis. It only makes sense that the gatekeeper should be, well, “broadminded.”

I’m afraid my time’s up; hopefully I can explore this topic at greater length on another date. Here’s looking at you, kid.

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