October 25, 2011
For nine years running, MoMA’s To Save and Project international festival of film preservation has showcased the latest celluloid surgery jobs by archives the world over. It’s the one place where film stock is still a fetish, each new print ogled with the entitled leer of a sozzled Miss Universe judge. So I was sent to my oft-used fainting couch when it was announced that a digital restoration would open this year’s fest (which runs through Nov. 25th). This prestigious pole-position was granted to Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (1968), a delirious mash-up of pop culture detritus, from psychotic b-movies to baffling Bufferin commercials.
Dante and Jon Davison edited the entire feature by hand, splicing in new scenes when intriguing material passed their way. Eventually the project ballooned to 7 hours, but with its broad humor, broads, and critique of the military-industrial complex, it toured college campuses under a Schlitz beer sponsorship. By the end of its run the print had more stitches than Frankenstein’s monster, without the salve of Karloff’s soulful stare. It would be unlikely to survive another trip through a projector. So Dante shoved the benighted thing through a film-to-tape transfer, and after some screenings on the West coast has finally brought his beast to the East. Now at a svelte 4 1/2 hours, it’s a marvel of gonzo editing. It contains an actual narrative, collapsing the apocalypses of a bunch of sci-fi/teen rebel/horror cheapies into one mega-Armageddon, while finding time for mini-comedies and grace(less)-notes in between.
For this main narrative, I spotted the following titles: Speed Crazy (1959), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), Teenagers From Outer Space (1959), College Confidential (1960), The Giant Gila Monster (1959), Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and Beginning of the End (1957). There are many more I couldn’t identify, but these images of nuclear paranoia are spread throughout, until Dante and Davison edit them together in a blaze of melodramatic parallel editing that would make D.W. Griffith a little nauseous.
W.C. Fields, George Burns and Groucho Marx act as a bemused chorus during the chaos, used in reaction shots in response to whatever absurd travail Dante places before them (maybe Peter Graves gunning down locusts or Andy Devine singing “Jesus Loves You” with a cat and a gerbil). It’s the Kuleshov effect used for juvenile laughs, which I fully endorse. Dante uses this gag in other forms, once in an Eisenstinian montage, cutting from a dog training short to one for the Marines, or equally bluntly, from kids setting up a projector to a striptease. Dante is in full control of the editing-as-joke mechanism, and he wrings some hilarious bits out of it. Another routine worked through multiple variations is condensing an entire feature into a descriptive one-shot. In a B-dog-movie called (something like) “Rusty Comes Home”, he shows one scene of a dog running to a boy. “You came back!”. Cut to “The End” credit.
Then there are the insane commercials, including a mind-melting series from Bufferin, in which a military recruiter sends a kid to war and a landlord evicts an elderly couple. Both use the pill to ease their guilty consciences. In the latter a building implodes behind the landlord as he pops his aspirin. These play more like parody than ad copy. The true star of Dante’s opus though, is Brett Halsey, the star of Speed Crazy (1959). Under the sensitively absent direction of William Hole, Jr., Halsey furrows his brow and strangles out his motto, “Don’t crowd me!”, thousands of times. Whether he’s chatting up a gum-smacking dame (in which crowding would seem to be the point) or stabbing a square authority figure, he repeats the phrase incessantly, as if Halsey forgot the rest of his lines. But he had already appeared in 20 movies, the absurdity of his repetition a likely result of compressed shooting times and a thin script. By the end, the audience was erupting in scattered cheers whenever Halsey appeared on-screen, as I would like to do for this entire low-brow masterpiece. Because of its endless copyright infringement, The Movie Orgy will never appear on home video, so rush to see it if it ever plays near you.
The other highlight of the festival for me was Edward L. Cahn’s Afraid to Talk (1932), a brutally despairing corruption drama, based on the play Merry-Go-Round by Albert Maltz and George Sklar. Made during the depths of the Great Depression, it exhibits a totalizing distrust of authority, with Chicago city officials displayed as more comprehensively criminal than the gangsters they are ostensibly supposed to pursue. Jig Skelli (Edward Arnold) kills kingpin Jake Stranskey (Robert Warwick) to take over his racket. When he’s rousted for the crime, he simply flashes Stranskey’s records, which implicate every major Chicago official as on the take, from the DA’s office to the Mayor’s. Needing a scapegoat, the cops pin the murder on bell boy Eddie Martin (Eric Linden), almost beating him to death to force a confession.
Cahn and DP Karl Freund (Metropolis) visualize the back-scratching corruption of the government through shifting group shots. At police chief Frank Hyers’ (Ian Maclaren) well-appointed pad, the top officials often gather around the table to pop champagne and talk jubilantly of their double dealings. Hyers is framed to his left by the Mayor (a red-faced Berton Churchill) and Assistant DA Wade (Louis Calhern). On the right District Attorney Anderson (Tully Marshall) and a rotating cast of underlings. They are framed in long shot, with a receding hallway behind them. Down that hallway comes an indistinguishable mass of Fedora’d newspapermen, walking in lockstep, resigned to regurgitate the party line.
This grouping of power is contrasted to configurations of weakness, specifically in the initial interrogation of Eddie, who is the point of a triangle between Wade and Anderson. Later in this sequence Eddie’s wife Peggy (Sidney Fox) is subjected to an intensely close two-shot, in which Wade leans over her prone body as she rests her head in her hands. These different figural arrangements reach a climax in Eddie’s second interrogation, when his confession needs to be forced. There the cops, after flicking the overhead lamp to tick-tock over their heads, converge to make an airtight boundary around him, the image just one hulking mass of black wool suit. In this shot all of Eddie’s subjectivity is erased, to be halfway restored in the still-pessimistic conclusion. The governmental pack is thinned out, but the structures that allowed for Eddie’s blotting out are still firmly in place, as the news ticker trumpets another mission accomplished.