July 30, 2013

hollywood boulevard

Roger Corman’s career would be impossible today. There is no more infrastructure for low-budget genre experimentation, as filmmakers must increasingly rely on crowd-funding to get their modest projects off the ground (even Spike Lee took that route last week), with little hope of distribution. The only outfit as prolific as Corman’s New World Pictures is The Asylum, the mock-busters behind Sharknado, except their model doesn’t encourage the young but re-animates the old for a quick buck. Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix shares Corman’s huckster spirit and eye for talent, but only has the funds to make 2-3 films a year (New World could crank out 10). And while there is plenty of creativity on display in direct-to-video action movies (like Jesse V. Johnson and Isaac Florentine), they are totally isolated from Hollywood at-large, never graduating to larger productions like Corman alumni Martin Scorsese and Joe Dante. What we are robbed of from this lack is gonzo oddities like Dante and Allan Arkush’s Hollywood Boulevard (1976), a no-budget satire of an exploitation film production. Streaming on Netflix (cropped from 1.85 to 1.33, sadly), it’s a loving take-down of Corman’s shoestring flicks “shamelessly loaded with sex and violence”, per the tagline.


“This doesn’t have a lot of the conventional virtues of a movie.” -Joe Dante on Hollywood Boulevard

Joe Dante and Allan Arkush were trailer editors for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the early 70s, and eager to direct. Together with friend and producer Jon Davison, they approached Corman about helming their first feature. Davison bet Corman that they could make the cheapest film in New World history. Corman gave them 10 days and $60,000 ($246,225 in today’s dollars) to shoot Hollywood Boulevard. Another catch was that Corman still needed them to cut the trailers, so Dante recalled that they agreed to “make the movie in the daytime, if we did the trailers at night.” Realizing they did not have the cash for the kind of action scenes a Corman feature required, they came up with the idea to make it about a B-movie Studio, and re-purpose footage from old New World titles. As trailer cutters, they were familiar with every last crash and fireball in the studio’s archive. Dante and Davison were already veteran re-purposers, having edited together the monstrous 7-hour collage The Movie Orgy (1968) out of scarps of B-movies, commercial outtakes, and public access TV (I wrote about this masterpiece here). To cut down on shooting time Dante and Arkush would prepare separate set-ups simultaneously. When Dante shouted “cut” on one scene, Arkush would yell “action!” on another. It’s one of the rare films in which the feature acts as a documentary of its own production, as the characters in the film deal with the same budget deficits  as it’s creators. Dante referred to it as a “home movie”.


The only film set Dante had been on was Death Race 2000 (1975), so he hired the two actors he met there, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel. They play bitchy  actress Mary McQueen and delusional director Erich Von Leppe, respectively, the star employees of Miracle Studios (slogan: “If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle!”). Woronov is all legs and bile, while Bartel deploys his plummy baritone to absurdities like his thematic breakdown of Atomic War Brides: “What we’re trying to do here is combine the legend of Romeo and Juliet with high speed car action and a sincere plea for international atomic controls in our time.”


McQueen’s female co-stars have been dying off, which opens the door for Candy Wednesday (Candice Rialson), just off the bus and ready for work – any work. She is aided by huckster agent Walter Paisley, played with sleazy screwball brio by future Dante-axiom Dick Miller. She is quickly promoted from stunt woman to actress, landing a part in the Machete Maidens of Mora Tau, a Polynesian naked women-with-guns farrago that’s a take-off on The Big Doll House (1971). When Candy watches her debut at the local drive-in with Walter and her screenwriter boyfriend, she has to sit through New World features The Terror (1963, also with Dick Miller) and Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), which are skewered with Mystery Science Theater relish. In the most terrifying moment in the movie, Candy is so enraged by the film, and the inclusion of a rape scene, that she storms into the projection booth, demanding the film be stopped. Then the projectionist attacks her, implying that the audience’s thirst for sex and violence is not so innocent.


The entire film is a blunt attack on Hollywood heartlessness, especially about its abuses of women, from the cattle call of actresses for a nude scene to the total indifference Von Leppe displays towards deaths on his productions. There’s always another girl to replace them, as Candy shortly learns. Narrative is incidental to Hollywood Boulevard, but it eventually shifts from backstage black comedy into satiric slasher flick, with plot details borrowed from the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Death Kiss (1932). Miracle Pictures makes bad movies, but their lives become one, as the body count mounts due to a robed killer straight out of their prop room. In the delirious finale, the murdereress is disrobed and crushed by the Hollywood sign, a blunt metaphor (and weapon) for the town’s attitude towards women.

With the demise of double-bills and the death of drive-ins, the market for cheap programmers has dried up, whether inspired like Hollywood Boulevard or rote like the films it burlesques. But without this cheap testing ground filmmakers don’t have the luxury of making mistakes like their predecessors – not when it’s impossible for the most successful of directors to make more than one film every couple of years. Perhaps the growth of VOD will create more demand for product that someone like Fessenden can exploit, but it doesn’t seem likely.  Even Dante is finding it hard to make features these days. If his next film ends up on Kickstarter, don’t be surprised, but at least donate.


October 25, 2011

the movie orgy

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.