Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fuchsia hall of famer: A look back at 'Purple Rain' (with special guest Craig J. Clark)

Has it really been 30 years since Purple Rain debuted? The answer is yes.

"They finally even made a movie about it ... Whenever anything important happens in America, they have to gold-plate it, like baby shoes." 
-Stephen King, Carrie

Prince, as crudely illustrated by your humble blogger.
Is it still legal to discuss Prince on the Internet? I'm pretty sure His Purpleness, a public figure notoriously skeptical of the media, issued a fatwa some years ago strictly forbidding the general public from even invoking his holy name on the web. But we believe in taking chances here at Dead 2 Rights, so we are ignoring the fatwa and presenting you with this brave, defiant review of Purple Rain on the historic occasion of its thirtieth anniversary.

Directed by Albert Magnoli (whose sparse, flop-ridden resume includes Tango & Cash and the gymnastics extravaganza American Anthem) and written by Magnoli with veteran TV scribe William Blinn (Starsky & Hutch, Eight is Enough), Purple Rain served as a vehicle for Minneapolis born rock star Prince Rogers Nelson and marked the absolute commercial peak of his lengthy and prosperous career in show business, an odyssey which continues to this day. Made for a mere $7 million, Rain eventually grossed $80 million, becoming arguably the first true blockbuster to be spawned by the rise of the cable channel MTV and its then-cutting-edge music videos. The summer of 1984 was a busy one: this was the year of such iconic flicks as Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Gremlins. And yet, the R-rated Purple Rain managed to find its own niche in the marketplace, succeeding where the summer's other big musical, Rhinestone, failed miserably.

At the time, it looked like Prince had found a potential second career as a screen idol. This notion was dispelled by a series of unsuccessful follow-ups, including Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (1990), the latter a direct sequel to Purple Rain. Nevertheless, Prince's debut film remains a landmark for many and has inspired some thoughtful tributes on its birthday. So I thought I'd add to the mix by contributing my own thoughts on the film, along with those of my friend and fellow movie blogger Craig J. Clark.

"The movie" is an important milestone in the lifespan of any pop cultural phenomenon, particularly in America. When some comedian, singer, TV show, toy, or fad becomes really popular with "the young people," you can be sure "the movie" will be coming soon. After all, the youth audience is the most desirable demographic in the entertainment business, so Hollywood wants to give these folks movies about whatever the hell they're interested in this year or this month or this week. Preferably as soon as possible ... you know, before they forget. You know how screwy these kids are. One week it's this thing, the next it's something else. Keep in mind, the pop cultural phenomenon in question doesn't necessarily have to vaporize in the span of a few months, but it just might.

Really, if we are being very hard-nosed about these things, we can admit that A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Cool as Ice (1991) were made for the exact same reason: to capitalize on a teenage fad. Some musical act is hot, so let's get 'em in front of the cameras before they cool off. Couple this desire to "cash in" with the fact that pretty much every singer dreams of being a movie star, and you know what you get? Lots of movies starring pop singers. In a weird way, these movies add a sort of permanence to what might otherwise have turned out to be ephemeral. That's why I started this article with that Stephen King quote. These movies really are like the cinematic counterpart of gold-plated baby shoes. Pop stars might fall off the charts and into obscurity in a few months, and they inevitably will age and evolve over time. But those movies never change. They're in the can forever, preserving the stars in amber just as they were during their zeitgeist-capturing heydays.

Diversifying the portfolio.
Of course, it always helps to diversify one's portfolio (so to speak) in the notoriously fickle business we call show. If a singer shows promise as an actor, he or she might have a whole second career going. Who'd have guessed country crooner Reba McEntire would be the star of a long-running sitcom, for instance? Out of some combination of vanity and stubbornness (both of which are prerequisites for stardom, I might add), Madonna, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie have all flogged away at acting careers, to varying degrees of success, over the years. And then there is the case of Prince Rogers Nelson, the scarily talented and often-just-scary Minneapolis R&B/rock musical genius whose public persona seems to be a combination of James Brown, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, and Captain Hook from Peter Pan.

Prince was hardly a newbie by the time he got the go-ahead to do "the movie" in 1984. He'd been a successful recording artist since 1978, when he was only 20, and had already released such popular albums as 1999 and Controversy by that point. But Purple Rain was Prince's Thriller moment. The film and (especially) its hit soundtrack album, which was #1 for an astonishing 24 weeks, catapulted him from mere mega-stardom to super-ultra-mega-deluxe stardom. I was a little too young for all of it at the time.

I'd have been eight when the R-rated flick came out, i.e. not really in the target audience. Like everyone else who lived in America during the Reagan years, however, I certainly heard Prince's songs at the time and continued to hear them for years afterward. You couldn't really avoid these tunes when they were blaring from car stereos in all directions. But Prince had a distinctly "adult" vibe to his image and career, much more so than Michael or Bruce or Cyndi. Even Madonna wasn't as frankly and threateningly sexual as Prince was at the time. Just saying his name out loud seemed a little dirty to me. I wasn't really into rock music back in '84 anyway. It would take a couple of years and the discovery of nerd-friendly bands like Devo, Talking Heads, and They Might Be Giants to indoctrinate me into that world.

To be honest, I was still a little afraid of Purple Rain after all these decades. The special edition DVD has, as you'd expect, a lurid purple cover. And there you'll find that iconic image of Prince in his Seinfeld-esque puffy shirt and purple top coat, straddling his obscenely purple motorcycle, as his leading lady Apollonia stands in a doorway at the top of some stairs in the background, looking like a vampire hooker. And there's fog everywhere! Citizens, I won't lie. It looks sleazy. I was more than a little embarrassed to be checking this thing out from the local library. I felt sure the old lady behind the counter was silently judging me.

Despite these obstacles, I did manage to watch Purple Rain in preparation for this article. And you know what? The flick is not entirely bad, and if I squint I can almost see why it was an $80 million hit back when $80 million went further than it does now. As a delivery system for the Thing That Is Prince, Purple Rain more than gets the job done. You say want a tiny, androgynous man humping the stage in front of an appreciative Minneapolis audience? You got it, mister! He's on screen, I'd estimate, 80-90% of the time. And for most of that time, he's doing what he does best: singing and playing guitar on stage with his band, the Revolution (whose members portray themselves with varying levels of enthusiasm).

At least three of the songs in this film, the title track, "When Doves Cry," and "Let's Go Crazy," are among those inescapable, indelible Prince hits I mentioned earlier. They'll be with us forever. Someone's listening to those songs right now, I'll wager, playing air guitar and mouthing the words in front of a mirror. I don't know whether or not Prince would approve of that either. But, anyway, these songs are still striking and richly deserve their vaunted place in the pop culture pantheon.

The familiar video for Prince's "When Doves Cry."
Ironically, though, that massive success is the main reason that Purple Rain pretty much fails completely as a narrative. The film is supposed to tell the story of "The Kid," a suspiciously Prince-like aspiring musician on the Minneapolis club scene. Structurally, this means that Purple Rain closely resembles 8 Mile (2002) with Eminem. Both films supposedly give us the gritty, unglamorous stories (tastefully fictionalized, of course) behind the careers of controversial pop stars. We see their early professional ups and downs in their respective local music scenes, plus plenty of ugly, unpleasant family and relationship drama on the side, too. And through all their tribulations and setbacks, these young men are guided by singular desire: to succeed. They know that music is their ticket to a better life, and they're not going to give up on their dreams. Okay, that's great. But somehow this seems a better fit for Eminem than it does for Prince. For one thing, Eminem's turbulent personal history has always been a key component to his music and has been very widely reported in the media.

On the other hand, Prince has been extremely media shy throughout his career, and his lyrics don't function terribly well as an autobiography. So, really, who even knows or cares what Prince's backstory is? Secondly, Eminem has never been shy about presenting himself in a negative light on his albums, and in 8 Mile we get to see his character, Rabbit, crash and burn as a rapper before finally succeeding. But Prince is too cool a customer for that. He is fully formed when he meet him, both in terms of his music and his fashion sense. He enters this movie on a motorcycle which matches his outfit, for God's sake! He seems more like a costumed superhero who fell to earth from Planet Sexy than a mere mortal rock star. It's hard to take any of his problems too seriously.

Prince is never anything other than Prince for even a second. Even when he's talking to policemen after his abusive father's suicide attempt (by gun) or when he's fantasizing his own suicide (by rope), he always seems like he's two seconds away from posing for an album cover. He's posing all the time, in fact. Throughout this movie, people occasionally tell "The Kid" that his music isn't going to catch on, but it's impossible to believe the naysayers because we know the truth. The soundtrack album was #1 for almost half a year, after all. These very songs were burned into America's brain. When we weren't hearing them on Top 40 radio, we were seeing them on MTV. And we're supposed to believe this guy is struggling to make it? Come on! Who do you think you're fooling?

Here is Prince holding a puppet and refusing to act.
Can Prince act? Frankly, I don't know. I've seen a whole movie in which he's the unquestioned star, and I still have no idea whether the man can act or not. What I can honestly say is that he doesn't act in this movie. It seems like a personal choice. He refuses to act. One of Prince's very rare television interviews was a famously stilted appearance he made on American Bandstand in the early 1980s. If you don't have time in your life to watch Purple Rain in its entirety this weekend, watch that American Bandstand clip instead because it basically gives you the whole "Prince acting" experience in a nutshell. At one point, Clark asked Prince how many instruments he played, and the young musician wordlessly held up four fingers as an answer. In this very movie, the members of his backing band, The Revolution, confront him at one point about being such a paranoid control freak and he responds to their complaints via a puppet. I'm not kidding. A puppet! Where'd he get that puppet anyway?

I'm surprised he didn't use that prop in all his other scenes, like the completely tacked-on, perfunctory, and unconvincing romantic subplot. Yeah, "The Kid" has a supposed "romance" with fellow up-and-comer Apollonia Kotero (also playing herself ... sorta), but their conversations largely consist of Prince barking terse, two-or-three-word orders at her. "Get on!" "Give me that!" "Let's go!" That's Prince the silver screen lover. Rudolph Valentino he ain't. (How curious that Prince should have invoked Valentino's memory in his lyrics for the song "Manic Monday.") I guess there's some kind of point being made here by the writer-director, because we're supposed to see that The Kid has learned all the wrong lessons about how to treat a lady from his abusive, slap-happy musician pappy (Clarence Williams III of TV's The Mod Squad) and has picked up plenty of bad habits from his old man, but I found these scenes neither convincing nor terribly interesting or compelling. The script does provide a rather contrived opportunity for the busty Ms. Kotero to go topless for a few seconds, and I'm afraid that's the only reason why she's here. She brings nothing else to the table. Enjoy those few seconds, horny teenage boys in the audience!

Morris Day helps lighten the mood occasionally.
I realize I've spent the last few paragraphs complaining about Purple Rain, but the truth is that I more or less liked this charmingly ridiculous film. It's got an undeniable time capsule quality to it that I appreciated, giving viewers in 2014 a chance to see some flamboyant fashions from a bygone era, and the concert sequences are (and I'm not ashamed to use this adjective when it's warranted) electrifying. They're the real reason to watch this movie now. The director may not have been able to tell much of a story, but he was able to capture the dynamism of his star. Since sullen, taciturn Prince is no fun at all when he's not signing in this movie, however, it's up to the supporting cast to keep the audience entertained between tunes.

I have thus far neglected to even mention the movie's flamboyant yet fun-loving villain, Morris Day, who I guess is portraying some fictionalized version of himself in this film, too. A rival funk bandleader who would have both the Minneapolis club scene and the heart of the fair Apollonia for his very own, Morris is a shameless schemer straight out of Saturday morning cartoons. In fact, he and his sidekick Jerome Benton (also apparently playing himself or some parody of himself) reminded me quite a bit of Dick Dastardly and Muttley from Wacky Races. They're among the few characters in this film who seem to notice that Purple Rain is utterly ludicrous and don't even pretend to take it seriously. In retrospect, that was really the wisest approach all along. This isn't rocket surgery, after all. It's rock 'n' roll. And now, my dear readers, I leave you in the capable hands of Mr. Craig J. Clark, whose excellent and frequently-updated blog (he puts me to shame in this respect) is a mere click away.

Purple Rain, considered: a blunt appraisal by Craig J. Clark

Prince and his iconic sunglasses in 1984's Purple Rain. This shot could have used more purple.

Kristin Scott Thomas & Prince in Under the Cherry Moon.
I have not had a burning need to fill the Purple Rain-sized hole in my film education, but I have long been curious about the abbreviated acting career of the Artist Who Used To Formerly Be Known As Prince But Now Is Known As Prince Again. After all, Purple Rain was a big enough hit that it begat Under the Cherry Moon (which rather improbably provided Kirstin Scott Thomas with her big-screen debut), Sign o' the Times (his one true concert film) and Graffiti Bridge. Tellingly, all three of those follow-ups were directed by Prince (who also wrote Sign and Graffiti for good measure), but only the last one was an actual sequel to the film that, a quarter century later, remains his one true box-office success. 
Even if I didn't see Purple Rain when it first came out (I turned 11 in 1984, so R-rated movies were still strictly off-limits to me), I was able to get the gist of it thanks to MTV's airing of the video for "When Doves Cry" in heavy rotation that summer. (I would provide a link to said video -- which perfectly encapsulates the themes and much of the imagery of the film -- but as Joe said Prince's people have been on a tireless crusade of late when it comes to expunging his material from the Internet. Unless, of course, it's the man himself trolling YouTube and other sites for fans/flagrant copyright violators to report. Based on his control-freak reputation, I actually wouldn't put that past him.) Coupled with my enthusiasm for the videos for "1999" and "Little Red Corvette," I was quite the budding Prince fan but somehow never got around to picking up any of his albums. Perhaps I knew instinctively that if I did there was a chance my mother would ask to listen to one and be scandalized by the likes of "Darling Nikki" (one of the songs that got Tipper Gore's dander up back in the day). Choosing the path of Hall & Oates and Huey Lewis and the News seemed much safer in comparison. 
Then again, even with as many hits as they had, nobody to my knowledge ever asked Daryl, John or Huey (or anyone in the News for that matter) to star in a semi-fictionalized musical biography charting their trials and tribulations on the way to fame and fortune. (To see how such a thing can go horribly, horribly wrong, check out Mariah Carey's Glitter some time... or don't. Only you know how much your own time is worth to you.) More than likely the mere existence of MTV -- which gave bands the chance to make any of a number of three-minute films, biographical or otherwise -- obviated the need for the film industry to craft as many vehicles around the nascent personalities of up-and-coming rock-and-rollers as it had during the '60s boom. (Did you know Herman's Hermits starred in three motion pictures? Three!) Of course, by the time he starred in Purple Rain, Prince was well past the up-and-coming stage of his career, which is why the inevitable comparison with A Hard Day's Night is both apt and misleading at the same time. 
Defining the Fabs as individuals.
Much has been written about the way A Hard Day's Night helped to define John, Paul, George and Ringo as individuals in the eyes of their fans (much as many aspects of Prince's public persona were cemented by his turn in Purple Rain), but the most important thing about their feature film debut was that it was most emphatically about the present, where Beatlemania already existed, and not the path that led to it. That story would be told on film many times in the decades to come, but it wouldn't star the Beatles. And while it's true that Prince is playing a character called "The Kid," which is how co-writer/director Alfred Magnoli tries to get away with the fiction that he's an unknown, struggling artist, it's hard to believe scenes like the one where he slays the crowd with the title song and then angrily stalks off the stage, somehow thinking that he's bombed, only to return triumphant moments later to sing the two closing numbers, "I Would Die 4 U" (which, as producer Robert Cavallo says on the commentary, feels somewhat perfunctory coming after the cathartic "Purple Rain") and "Baby I'm a Star" (which, in all honesty, was never really in question). 
Since the live performances are the most electric scenes in the whole film, one wonders why Prince didn't simply go the concert film route -- à la Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same, Frank Zappa's Baby Snakes or the Rolling Stones' Let's Spend the Night Together -- for his maiden cinematic voyage. Not only was his back catalog deep enough, but he could have easily filled out the evening with unreleased tracks from his vaults and still not broken a sweat. If he wanted to, he could have even kept The Time and Apollonia 6 as support acts, letting them come out and perform "Jungle Love" and "Sex Shooter" the way Talking Heads morph into Tom Tom Club for "Genius of Love" in the middle of Stop Making Sense. As it is, the film opens with The Revolution's blistering performance of "Let's Go Crazy," during which we're introduced to aspiring singer/dancer Apollonia skipping out on a taxi fare and taking a room at a sleazy hotel and Morris Day preening as he prepares for his grand entrance to the club. Then, after the briefest of pauses, The Time jumps straight into "Jungle Love," which unfortunately isn't allowed to play out completely because the film needs to follow Prince home on his motorcycle to look in on his abusive father and wayward mother. (It's almost surreal that his father's biggest complaint about his mother is that she doesn't clean often enough.) 
What follows is a semi-coherent narrative made up of half-scenes and barely functional dialogue full of bald-faced exposition recited by musicians with little to no acting experience who are essentially playing thinly conceived variations on themselves. I'm not sure why Prince would want people to associate him with the character of The Kid, though, since he's kind of a dick. Take, for instance, the scene where he tricks Apollonia into removing all of her clothing and jumping into a freezing cold lake, then keeps scooting his motorcycle away from her whenever she tries to climb on. The Kid is also perpetually late for business meetings and band rehearsals and keeps putting off Wendy and Lisa, two members of his band with songwriting aspirations. (It's after Wendy calls him out on his paranoia, telling him, "You can really hurt people," that he performs his bizarre ventriloquist act.) Overall, though, he saves his worst behavior for Apollonia. 
Apollonia pawns her anklet for Prince.
Apparently determined to top the incident at the lake, Magnoli and his co-writer William Blinn (a TV veteran who wrote Brian's Song and created the series Starsky and Hutch, among other things) draft a scenario where Apollonia -- who, remember, is an unknown who has to stay at a seedy dive because it's the only place she can afford -- pawns her anklet so she can buy The Kid a guitar (which he seems genuinely surprised to get, like it's Christmas morning or something). Then, when she casually announces that she's joining Morris Day's girl group, he belts her one (a real "I learned it by watching you" PSA moment) and then immediately switches gears, inexplicably asking her, "Don't I make you happy? Don't you like the way we are?" Yeah, Kid, I'm sure she's thrilled about getting slapped around by you simply because she wants to have a career of her own. He won't even leave her alone when he's onstage, causing her to burst into tears with the masturbation anthem "Darling Nikki" (which doesn't seem too far removed from her own group's "Sex Shooter" when you get right down to it). Odd, then, that that's the song that inspires the none-too-imposing club owner to tell The Kid, "Your music makes sense to no one but yourself." 
The crux of the matter, psychologically speaking, is The Kid's contentious relationship with his father, a brilliant pianist/composer with anger management issues. I don't know how much of that correlates to Prince's actual family history, and frankly I don't want to know, but I doubt he ever confronted his own father by saying, "I saw Mom up the street. She looked pretty bad. Any idea how she got that way?" That's the sort of line that only rings true to a screenwriter with a tin ear for dialogue. Purple Rain is much better off when it lets Prince's music speak for him.



NOTE: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Unloosen.com

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 44: An avalanche of Ed Wood!

It's raining Ed! Hallelujah, it's raining Ed!

NOTE: It had been my intention to review Ed Wood's The Vampire's Tomb (2013), a film by Andre Perkowski, today. However, I have been inundated with so much exciting Ed Wood news lately that I felt I simply had to devote this week's entire article to it. The Vampire's Tomb will just have to wait until next the next installment of Ed Wood Wednesdays on August 6. Sorry, Andre.

In what I can only interpret as a sign of the massive success of Ed Wood Wednesdays, a dizzying variety of Ed Wood-related material will be hitting the marketplace with a Genghis Khan-like vengeance in the next few months. This is clearly an endorsement of my work. What else could it be? Consider the evidence: after many years without any significant re-releases, other than the Big Box of Wood DVD collection in 2011, the Wood-ian floodgates have finally opened, my dear readers! We're talking movies, books, and even a fancy-schmancy New York film festival. The works! Naturally, I'm very excited about all of these events, and I want you to be excited about them, too. In all seriousness, I think it's just a happy coincidence that all of these things are happening at once. Maybe the stars have aligned perfectly. Maybe something got into the water supply. Whatever it is, it's happening, and I could not be more pleased. But what specifically are we getting and when? Let's dive into those all-important specifics, shall we?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My (brief) thoughts on the Monty Python finale

Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Carol Cleveland, Terry Gilliam, and John Cleese together for the last (?) time.

I have just returned, my lovelies, from the local cineplex, where I paid $18 for the privilege of seeing a group of paunchy, jowly, sagging septuagenarians shuffle through some ancient sketch comedy for three hours (with a half-hour tea break in the middle). I would not have missed this opportunity for the world. These affable old-timers, you see, were the five surviving members of Monty Python, and the occasion was the British comedy troupe's "farewell" performance, which was staged at London's O2 Arena and then simulcast to movie theaters around the world. The rapidly-deteriorating comedians tell us that this is "it" for the team. Monty Python is no more. Bereft of life, you might say, it rests in peace. Or in pieces. So how was the big finale? Was it worth $18 of anyone's money? Oh, sure. I laughed throughout the entire running time, which felt good to do even though I'd heard most of these jokes dozens of times. I even got a few chuckles from the 30-minute intermission, during which the screen went blank apart from a clock counting down the minutes and seconds, because the movie-going audience had not been briefed of this in advance and thought for a few minutes that it might be some kind of high-concept prank. (It wasn't.)

An ad for the concert
As for the rest of the program, it was quaint, sentimental, and nostalgic. The innovators and provocateurs of yesteryear are now the established old guard, and this was a chance for them to cycle through their greatest hits and bits. Some of these golden oldies were conflated: "Vocational Guidance Counselor" became "The Lumberjack Song," "Dead Parrot" melted into "Cheese Shop," etc. The fact that the show was the brainchild of the group's hammiest and most mercenary member, Eric Idle (the self-described "Greedy Bastard"), was plain to see. This was a slick, Broadway-style revue with a heavy emphasis on production numbers and fit, lean chorus girls and boys leaping and tumbling around the stage as the doddering oldsters watched in appreciation. For me, though, the highlights of the show were the quieter, more intimate moments when the five surviving Pythons (Graham Chapman died a quarter-century ago) simply took pleasure in sharing the stage with one another. The venerable "Four Yorkshireman" sketch, in which a quartet of wealthy old geezers try to outdo each other with outlandish tales of childhood suffering and poverty, has a special resonance in 2014 because the comedians performing it now really are the age of the folks they're parodying. Of course, the show ended with a group rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Life of Brian, and I can't have been the only one who got a little misty-eyed during that. After all, Monty Python has been a huge part of my life since the 1980s, when I first saw their BBC sketch comedy series in reruns on MTV. This really felt like a way of saying goodbye to the boys, plus Ms. Carol Cleveland, the honorary female "seventh Python." Perhaps now, they can be packed up in crates and shipped off to that warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Norm MacDonald pays tribute to his late 'Screwed' costar, Elaine Stritch

Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, and Elaine Stritch in Screwed.

Screwed on DVD.
The 2000 movie Screwed has not exactly engendered a great deal of affection over the years. Written and directed by the team of Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, whose previous collaborations include the script for Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), the film earned only $6 million on a $10 million budget and current rates a miserable 13% at Rotten Tomatoes, where it is described as "tedious and painfully unfunny." But 14 years after its original release, some good has come from this little-loved motion picture in the form of a series of tweets by one of its stars, comedian Norm MacDonald, who took to Twitter in order to pay tribute to late actress Elaine Stritch, who also appeared in Screwed.  Norm had previously appeared in the Karaszewski/Alexander-written biopic The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996), but this collaboration proved less fortunate. Unlike MacDonald's previous vehicle, Dirty Work (1998), this forlorn kidnapping comedy has failed to attract any kind of cult following. When read in succession, MacDonald's tweets about making this movie form a lovely little short story about show business. Self-effacing and unpretentious as always, Norm dishes on his own lack of acting ability and the entire cast's lack of faith in the screenplay, but he also takes the time to reminisce fondly about his experiences with Stritch and with fellow stand-up comic Dave Chappelle. The line that really sticks with me is a quote from Elaine herself: "Every time I make a film, I think I am making someone's favorite movie." And now, I think I'll let Norm take over. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

So, basically, I'm super-famous now... no biggie... whatevs.

Joe Blevins and Jeff Bridges in The Achievers. Photo by Matt "Slug" Brown

Netflix knows who I am. This can only be a good thing. I feel like Steve Martin as Navin Johson in that one scene from The Jerk where he gets his name in the phone book and freaks out over what a big deal it is. Following that logic, it should only be a matter of time before M. Emmet Walsh tracks me down and starts taking shots at my carefully-stacked cans of motor oil. Seriously, thanks to Matt Brown for forwarding this photo along to me. If nothing else, it "proves" that I was in a Jeff Bridges movie. Yep, me and beloved, Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges, the best of buds, hanging out by the craft service table, talking about our lives and our careers. That's how it was on the set of The Achievers. We were in white terrycloth robes and had cucumber slices over our eyes. So good for removing dark circles. So good.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

I love watching people fail

An attempted hit goes wonderfully, wonderfully wrong in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.

I don't know who you are, but I'm probably rooting against you. I realize how that sounds, and it's not something in which I take pride. But it's true nevertheless. If you exist and you're not me, I kinda want you to fail and fail hard. Wow. That sounds so ugly. It's not something I can control about myself. That's just how my brain works. Keep in mind, there are limits. I don't wish disease, death, or dismemberment on anyone. I don't want you to get pancreatic cancer or lose an eye in an explosion. I'm a monster, sure, but I'm not that much of a monster. When I say "fail and fail hard," I mean stuff like unemployment, divorce, and bankruptcy. Oh, and public humiliation's always good if it's happening to someone else. I wouldn't want you to get terminally depressed over it, because then we're getting into "disease and death" territory. But your team losing in the quarter-finals or your son flunking out of college? Oh, hell yeah. Sign me up for some of that.

I cannot tell you how much pleasure I got from the utter collapse of Brazil in the World Cup. I'm far from alone in this. We wouldn't have that marvelous world schadenfreude otherwise. Or Fail Blog. Or most of what's on TV right now. That's pretty much what comedy is: laughing at the other guy's misfortune. Once we enter the realm of fiction, all bets are off. Since the characters don't really exist and aren't truly suffering, it doesn't matter what happens to them. The worse the better, as far as I'm concerned. And that includes disease, death, and dismemberment. Take David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001) as an example. In one of the movie's best scenes, a surfer-dude-looking blonde thug named Joe Messing (Mark Pellegrino) pays a visit on his giggly, long-haired, low-life pal Ed (Vincent Castellanos), who sits behind a cluttered desk in the most pitiful, decrepit office building in Los Angeles. Neither of these guys is very bright, and both are worthless sleazeballs to boot, so what happens to them in this scene is especially delightful.

Here, take a look for yourself. If you haven't seen it, you're gonna love it. If you've already seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it again:



So good, right? So much delicious failure in such a short amount of time. And I love how whiny Joe gets. "Oh, maaaannnn...."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Tommie

Tommie, look at me! Tommie, over here!

If you already know who Tommie is, no explanation is necessary. If you don't already know who Tommie is, no explanation is adequate. Either way, there is no point in my annotating this image any more than I already have.

Friday, July 11, 2014

One Song at a Time: "Mind"

Talking Heads around the time they recorded the Fear of Music LP.

Song: "Mind"
Artist: Talking Heads
Released: 1979

Cheery cover, no?
I lived at home until I was in my mid-20s. I didn't plan it like that. Just sorta worked out that way. And I wasn't a layabout slacker, a la Ben Katz (H. Jon Benjamin) from Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, either. I went to college, and I worked as a customer service rep and a substitute teacher. But all that time, I was living in my bedroom from high school. Hell, still to this day, I have the same exact bed that I've had since I was 13. I'm writing this article from it now. Same dresser, too. And on top of that dresser, the same goddamned boombox. But, anyway, let's go back to the early 1990s. Specifically 1992-1993. My senior year of high school. That's the time when you're supposed to be getting your shit together -- applying to colleges, trying to get scholarships, picking out a career, all of that garbage. I knew I was supposed to do that stuff, but I just never got around to any of it. My mom's cancer-related death took a lot of the fight out of me back then, and I turned into the reclusive, bitter weirdo that I still basically am today. My dad took my mom's death even worse than I did and became a a rather sad and depressive person. I don't know if he's totally recovered, twenty years later. My sister, wisely, moved away and started a family of her own. Me, I stayed with my dad in my hometown. It was just the two of us in a house that was much too large. I'm not gonna lie to you, folks. Those were shitty, shitty years. (Did you see Crumb? Remember Charles Crumb and his mom? It was kinda like that. Not quite as bad, but definitely getting there. It was like the prequel to that.) My low point was when I took that customer service job, during which I worked in the world's most depressing phone bank in the basement of an auto parts plant. You descended this dimly-lit stairway to get there, like descending into Hell. All day, you had to absorb the negativity of the callers. Between calls sometimes, I would rest my head on my desk and sob. About eight or nine months into doing that, I went through the medicine cabinet at home and took everything in it. Wound up in the intensive care ward for three days. Not fun. Then went back to the parts plant to be a customer service rep again. Even less fun.

Cut to a few months later. Out of the blue, and I mean the fucking Papa Smurf's ass blue, I got a job offer to teach at a middle school near Joliet, IL. Even better, I was at my desk at the parts plant when it happened. I immediately took it, no questions. Quitting that customer service gig was one of the Top 5 happiest moments of my life. (I can't even think of the other four.) My father was not thrilled. He made me feel very guilty about the whole thing, and I don't think he's ever gotten over it. I felt then -- and I feel now -- like an ax murderer for moving out of his house and into my own apartment in another state, even though I'd definitely be dead today if I hadn't. That was 2001. That middle school was where I was when the Twin Towers fell. It was the day before my 26th birthday. I don't think I taught those kids in Joliet a damned thing. Someday, I'll write about my horrendous experiences as a teacher. (Short version: if you hate and fear people, especially teenagers, don't go into teaching.) But I certainly learned a valuable lesson that first year "on my own." I thought that the move would somehow magically fix everything and that my personality would just naturally smooth itself out once I was in Illinois. Didn't happen that way. I was the same asshole there that I was in Michigan. All my hang-ups, hatreds, insecurities, and inadequacies were still there in Illinois. That's what I think about whenever I hear "Mind" from the Fear of Music album by Talking Heads. Most of the lyrics are about the things that "won't change you": time, drugs, science, money, religion. I don't know if David Byrne was directing this song at himself, at the listener, or at somebody he knew. But I'll be good and goddamned if it isn't all true. I can add a few items to his list, too. Xanax won't change you. Therapy won't change you. Welbutrin won't change you. In the chorus, Byrne sings, "I need something to change your mind." Amen, brother. I'm still looking for that something.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 43: 'The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr.' (1995)

A selection of posters, DVD/VHS covers, and handbills related to Brett Thompson's 1995 documentary.

"This film is a true story. The screenplay is based on court testimony, sworn declarations, and hundreds of interviews conducted by the filmmakers. Some of the innocent characters' names have been changed in the interest of a larger truth. No one involved in the crimes received any form of financial compensation."
-prologue from John Waters' Serial Mom (1994)


Aleister Crowley
In 1899, when he was about 24 years old, the infamous English occultist and writer Aleister Crowley purchased and moved into the historic Boleskine House near Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands with the intent of performing a complicated six-month ritual called the Abramelin. The rarely-performed rite, which dates back to the 14th Century, is supposed to allow one to "master" demons. Already an avid fornicator and the pseudonymous author of lewd poetry, Crowley was anxious by this point in his still-young life to delve into the world of genuine black magic, not mere play-acting, and thought that the Abramelin was his passport to a world of untapped power. The ceremony's dangerous and foreboding reputation, which was enough to keep the superstitious Scottish locals safely away from Boleskine, was likely a great enticement to our insatiable thrill-seeker, whose own religious upbringing was almost perversely pious. But history records that Aleister Crowley abandoned the ritual before he had completed it. Why? As the late Colin Wilson testified in the 2002 made-for-TV documentary Masters of Darkness: Aleister Crowley - The Wickedest Man in the World: "He just couldn't be bothered to go on, because it really is pretty exhausting, you know, living on bread and water and getting up at 3:00 in the morning with invocations and all kinds of things. It's nothing as much as like being a monk, only harder. And so Crowley gave it up." England's most prolific and well-publicized sinner went on to other, presumably more entertaining forms of debauchery.

The former Edward Alexander Crowley died in 1947, the very year a young man named Edward Davis Wood, Jr. moved to Hollywood. Since July 2013, I have been rigorously documenting the life and career of Ed Wood. This very column will appear exactly one year after I introduced Ed Wood Wednesdays with a brief essay summarizing my interest in the unusual director and his profoundly idiosyncratic films. I have since completed 43 further installments, each one scrutinizing some particular aspect of Edward D. Wood, Jr's curriculum vitae. This has required me to spend many hours alone, hovering over a laptop computer, with only the endless drone of a nearby Lasko box fan to keep me company. In short, Ed Wood Wednesdays has become my personal Abramelin ritual, and its creation has been an arduous, pseudo-monastic experience for me. And unlike the notorious 14th century ceremony which bested Crowley, Ed Wood Wednesdays has no predetermined ending point. I have no idea when this series will be "finished."

Captain DeZita: A satyr?
Rather like the eager young Aleister Crowley at Boleskine, I suppose that I embarked upon this strange project because it had the faint air of wickedness about it. That must have been my motivation. I cannot precisely remember at this late juncture. From his angora sweaters to his Imperial whiskey, Ed Wood was a man with an aura of indulgence surrounding him. He was determined to seek pleasure in life, even if his desires were at odds with societal norms or his own best interests. Even at his most respectable, Ed was making extremely low-budget movies about tacky topics like "monsters, graves, [and] bodies," to quote Paul Marco in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). At his least respectable, a mullet-sporting and booze-bloated Eddie Wood, clad in sweatpants and a sleeveless T-shirt, was coaxing Maria Arnold and Ric Lutze to have sex in a century-old coffin on the set of the hardcore porno film Necromania (1971). Crowley himself might have admired that singularly-offensive moment and nodded with approval at Eddie's deliberate flaunting of taboos, particularly his brazen intermingling of sex and death.

It is pertinent at this juncture to note that numerous folks who knew Ed Wood personally have referred him to a satyr, a half-man/half-goat figure out of ancient Greek lore associated with drunkenness and lust. The infrequently-used term satyriasis, the male equivalent of nymphomania, takes its name from these mythical woodland gods. It is interesting to note that the hairy, horned Devil (played by strip club booking agent Captain DeZita) who attends Ed Wood's dream-wedding in Glen or Glenda? (1953) physically resembles a satyr. Aleister Crowley received a similarly animalistic appellation in his youth; his stern mother called him "the Beast," a nickname he later self-applied with bravado as an adult. England's popular press, however, referred to Crowley as "the Wickedest Man in the World," which seems only a short distance away from the label imposed by American critics upon Ed Wood, "the Worst Director of All Time." Both of these remarkable men suffered greatly for their excesses, and neither was a stranger to the "demons" of bankruptcy, failed marriages, and ill-health. The key difference is that Crowley reveled in his notorious reputation, while Wood longed for (and never achieved) mainstream respectability.

And now, with the due diligence of a monk, I present to you my thoughts on a highly unusual and artful mid-1990s documentary which focuses on Edward D. Wood, Jr. and which further seeks to place him in the proper historical context. Together, let us explore...

THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EDWARD D. WOOD, JR. (1995)

Alternate titles: The Haunted World of Ed Wood [informal title sometimes seen on the Internet]; The Dark World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. [Venezuela], The Bizarre World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. [Italy]

Availability: The film is easily available for about $10 on a standalone DVD (Image Entertainment, 2002) or as part of the six-disc collection The Ed Wood Box (Image, 2004).

C.J. Thomas
The backstory: Like many of Ed Wood's own movies, The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. owes its existence to a series of quirky coincidences and arbitrary connections. The unlikely acorn from which this oak grew was Crossroads of Laredo, the would-be Western which Ed Wood abandoned back in 1948 when he was still a pup. We might jocularly say that Eddie shot this poor movie and left it for dead in the Hollywood badlands. Wood's producing partner on the ill-fated oater was one Crawford John Thomas (1929-1998), a rather dashing fellow Eddie had met during his days as a struggling stage actor in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. At the time, Thomas was flush with cash thanks to a $2000 inheritance which he was eager to spend, and thus was formed a doomed and short-lived enterprise called Wood-Thomas Productions.

While Wood went on to a lengthy and improbable career in motion pictures, one which stretched on for three decades, the moribund Crossroads marked the simultaneous beginning and end of C.J. Thomas' showbiz aspirations. A half-hour of grainy silent footage was all that Crawford's inheritance money had reaped, perhaps a pitiful monument to an expired dream but at least something tangible he could show to people. Many of Hollywood's thwarted aspirants don't wind up with any type of souvenir, let alone a movie connected to a prominent director with "name value."

Still in all, the unsatisfactory experience with Ed Wood on Crossroads of Laredo took a heavy toll on Crawford John Thomas, and he was bitter about the subject for a long, long while -- whole decades, in fact. He just couldn't shake it. It was like a toothache that wouldn't go away. Eventually, though, his mercurial ex-partner became a prominent laughingstock, and the scathing reviews earned by Ed Wood's movies became a sort of Novocaine to Thomas. The pain was eased, and he could find amusement in the saga. By the 1990s, Thomas was a roofer and had been happily married to a woman named Pat for many years. And yet, the dream of finally completing and releasing Crossroads had never vanished from his mind. Perhaps, he felt, there was still time to shepherd the film to its well-earned destiny. A decades-old wrong could be righted.

The two men largely tasked with helping Thomas achieve this deferred dream were director Brett Thompson, an independent filmmaker whose Not Since Casanova (1988) had attracted some undeniably Wood-ian reviews, and neophyte producer Alan Doshna. Thomas and Doshna were members of the same church, and they both participated in the religious institution's Toastmasters-like public speaking group. Doshna must have been significantly impressed by Thomas' "icebreaker" presentation, during which the erstwhile film mogul spoke of his show business roots, including the fact that his father had been a dialogue coach to actor John Barrymore.

The first notable flowering of this church-based friendship was the 1992 documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion, in which Thomas appeared as himself, giving testimony about his time with Ed Wood and in so doing introducing himself to many of Wood's fans. Doshna was among those receiving special thanks in the credits of Flying Saucers, presumably for acting as a consultant or contributor in some undefined capacity on the project. Brett Thompson, meanwhile, met Thomas through a Pasadena attorney named Dan Hogue and visited Crawford and Pat at their home, where Crawford had an entire wall of his office decorated with stills from Crossroads of Laredo. Pat would later humorously recall that the ebullient and chatty Thompson was so enthusiastic about the project that he rather overstayed his welcome that night. But the director's interest in the still-unedited Crossroads was both strong and genuine, and C.J. Thomas happily placed the film in this new director's care.

Sufficiently impressed: Maila Nurmi
Brett Thompson's original plan for Crossroads of Laredo was to edit the footage together into some semblance of continuity, add a musical soundtrack and narration, and augment this with perhaps "twenty minutes" of newly-shot interviews with people associated with Ed Wood. Thompson was as good as his word. Crossroads was eventually completed along these lines in 1995; its finished version contained an explanatory preamble by an ascot-wearing C.J. Thomas himself, accompanied by Dolores Fuller, Ed Wood's one-time girlfriend/muse/leading lady, who also contributed newly-written songs to the soundtrack. But that idea of adding "twenty minutes" of supplemental interview footage eventually grew into a separate, 112-minute feature film entitled The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Thompson was surprisingly successful in corralling actors, friends, and technicians from Eddie's past, though there were some initial hiccups in this process. Thompson reports that many of these folks were hesitant about participating in The Haunted World because previous Wood-related endeavors, such as the Medved brothers' Golden Turkey Awards book in 1980, had made them the subject of scorn and ridicule.

The project's first significant "get" was Maila "Vampira" Nurmi, the Finnish-born horror hostess who had begrudgingly appeared as the Ghoul's Wife in Plan 9 from Outer Space during a late-1950s career slump after she'd been blacklisted and lost her gig on Los Angeles television. Nurmi did not often speak to the press about her tarnished career, particularly the downmarket Plan 9, but Brett Thompson allayed the Finn's fears by treating her, quite literally, as royalty. In the finished film, Nurmi is seated upon a throne, carefully lit and wrapped in scarves, amid a lavish recreation of the set of her '50s TV series. Thompson even went so far as to hire a Vampira impersonator (current high school drama teacher Tomi Griffin) to don a form-fitting black shroud similar to the one Nurmi had worn four decades previously, including an impossible 16" waistline, and glide across the set for purely atmospheric purposes.

Aided and abetted by art director Gregg Lacy and cinematographer David J. Miller, Brett Thompson set out to make a highly stylized, visually attractive film which eschewed the "sensible" plain-jane, talking-head approach of most pop culture docs and instead aped the look of Hollywood's Technicolor triumphs of the past. Toward this end, the director was meticulous about the lighting, costumes, and set decorations of his film, even though it was non-fiction in nature. To put it in 1950s terms, this project was guided more by the aesthetic spirit of Douglas Sirk than that of Edward R. Murrow. Rather than simply conveying information in a straightforward manner, as is the custom in most non-fiction films, Thompson sought to create evocative and eye-catching tableaux through all the tricks of the cinematic trade. This potentially-divisive and unorthodox approach remains the most salient feature of The Haunted World, the one factor which sets it well apart from other documentaries about Ed Wood. It is certainly unique to my experience as a moviegoer.

Dolores Fuller, both in the flesh and in oil.
Whether or not you approve of the director's methods (critic Rob Craig does; Wood historian Philip R. Frey does not), one fact is inarguable: Brett Thompson's deliberately flattering, almost fawning portrayal his subjects was crucial to the successful completion of The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Whatever educational merit the film may have, it certainly gathers a number of key players in the Ed Wood saga and presents them in a visually-arresting way. As many of these people have since passed away, The Haunted World now serves as a kind of celluloid yearbook.

Once word of Thompson's deluxe treatment of Maila Nurmi began to spread, more and more of the so-called "Wood spooks" agreed to participate in the project. This gathering of momentum through positive word-of-mouth is similar to that which marked the production of Aris Iliopulos' I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, another '90s Ed Wood tribute film with an equally-enthused young director at its helm. To justify the confidence that his "witnesses" (as they were termed in the film's closing credits) placed in him,

Thompson went well out of his way to distinguish his interviewees from one another by putting them them in colorful costumes or by photographing them with special props, sets, and lighting rigs. C.J. Thomas, for instance, appears in a facsimile of the office he once shared with Ed Wood in the 1940s. (His widow Pat remembered that her husband kept the door of the set as a souvenir.) Actors Conrad Brooks and David Ward, both long-time friends of Ed, show up in dandified cowboy clothes. Brooks is even granted a fake cactus and a wooden fencepost against which to lean. Reverend Lynn Lemon, the real-life preacher who both appeared in and helped finance Plan 9 from Outer Space, appears to be bathed in heavenly light and has his wife, Velma, staring up at him in silent adoration as he speaks.

Dolores Fuller, whose scenes were filmed near her Las Vegas home, poses proudly in front of an oil portrait of herself from the early 1960s, thereby doubling her "face time" in the movie. Harry Thomas, Ed Wood's makeup man throughout the 1950s, is seated next a makeup table on a soundstage, just as you'd expect him to be. Bela Lugosi, Jr., a dead ringer for his dad and one of the few "witnesses" to speak out directly against Ed Wood in the film, is presented in a faux-Gothic milieu appropriate for the son of movie royalty, complete with a velvet curtain, an ornate candelabra, and a chambermaid at his service. This nonspeaking servant is also portrayed by Tomi Griffin, the Vampira impersonator, her dual role perhaps a sly nod to Una O'Connor in The Bride of Frankenstein.

Only a few interviewees -- among them actor Lyle Talbot (of Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 fame), actress Loretta King (Bride of the Monster's ingenue), and director Joe Robertson (who turned Ed's Love Feast screenplay into a movie in 1969) -- are shot in the prosaic, head-and-shoulders manner we expect from movies of this type. Deep-voiced actor Gregory Walcott, the hero of Plan 9 and another Wood skeptic, serves as a quasi-anchorman for the film and is depicted on a pedestal against a white backdrop, giving him a God-like authority.

Understandably, these witnesses tend to talk about themselves nearly as much as they talk about Ed Wood, and in fact there is very little revealed about Wood in The Haunted World that his fans won't already know. The same old anecdotes, including the one about Ed wearing a bra and panties under his uniform in WWII, are rehashed once again. For the true novices in the audience, there are also brief primers on such prominent Wood stock players as Criswell and Tor Johnson.

Among the revelations, culled both from the film itself and its DVD commentary track:
Ed Wood, Sr. and Lillian Wood

  • We are treated to very rare photographs of Ed Wood as a child in Poughkeepsie, NY, and some vintage snapshots of his parents, Ed, Sr. and Lillian. Honestly, before revisiting The Haunted World, I had very little idea about what Ed's father truly looked like. The DVD is worth purchasing because it contains a storehouse of photographs and facsimiles of documents, including a letter that Ed wrote to his mother during the Second World War.
  • Bela Lugosi, Jr. reads a reverent passage concerning his father from Ed Wood's unpublished autobiography. Apparently, such a manuscript exists and is in the possession of Lugosi, Jr. Though Bela's son speaks harshly of Ed Wood in The Haunted World, his attitude has noticeably softened by the time of the recording of the commentary track five years later. In the movie, Lugosi, Jr. calls Ed "a user and a loser" and says that the director exploited his father. In the commentary track, though, he describes Ed Wood as "energetic," "persistent," and "very respectful" of Lugosi, Sr. He also admits that Eddie "kept Dad working near the end of his career." Lugosi, Jr.'s own dealings with Ed Wood were fleeting. Sometime in the 1970s, the younger Lugosi was assembling a biography of his famous father and dispatched Robert Kramer to interview Eddie on tape. At a couple of points in The Haunted World, we get to hear some ultra-rare, low-fi excerpts of Wood speaking to Kramer about Bela. It would seem that Lugosi, Jr. has a storehouse of unreleased material related to Ed Wood, including a transcript of the Kramer interview.
  • Maila Nurmi, captured in a delightfully naughty and gossipy mood, casually dishes about her affair with Ed Wood's idol, Orson Welles. The director of Citizen Kane gave her "the clap" (gonorrhea) and once complimented her on having a "magnificent carcass." As for the origins of her Vampira character, Nurmi is blunt. It was a direct ripoff of Charles Addams' famous character, Morticia. The gimmick of wearing a waist-cinching corset, which Nurmi picked up from BDSM magazines, was added to distinguish Vampira from Morticia. The actress also recalls her days as a dancer on Broadway and remembers being fired by Mae West, with whom she later reconciled through the intercession of Criswell, who was West's personal psychic and close friend.
Ed Wood directed a commercial for Pyequick.
  • A charming excerpt from a very early and primitive Ed Wood-directed TV commercial for a product called Pyequick from Betty Crocker is briefly seen in The Haunted World. Among the cast members of the commercial is Wood regular "Duke" Moore. A few seconds of the ad are shown in the main body of the film and a few more are included in the closing credits. As far as I know, this commercial has not appeared elsewhere.
  • Crawford John Thomas was so shaken by the failure of Crossroads of Laredo that he considered suicide. (Shades of Phil Tucker, the hapless director of Robot Monster.) Thomas actually recites the "to be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet while recalling this aspect of his life. This, coupled with the detail about the wall of his house devoted to Crossroads of Laredo, also reminded me of Dickens' Miss Havesham.
  • Dolores Fuller confirms that she was very uncomfortable with Ed Wood's tranvestism and that she was often embarrassed by his demonstrative, outlandish behavior. While she did eventually leave Eddie to pursue a successful career as a songwriter, penning tunes for Elvis Presley and Nat "King" Cole, she is far from the temperamental, selfish diva portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. In the commentary, Brett Thompson states that he wanted to give Fuller a chance to tell her side of the story. He also points out that she was the breadwinner in her relationship with Ed Wood and appeared on two national television series: Chevy Playhouse and Queen for a Day. In discussing her songwriting career, Fuller seems most proud of "Have a Happy," a tune she wrote for Elvis to sing in the movie Change of Habit (1969) and the philosophical, reflective "Someone to Tell it To," which was performed by Nat "King" Cole. Fuller recites the lyrics of the latter song towards the end of The Haunted World and is on the verge of tears throughout.
  • Dolores was by no means perfect, however. Just as you see in Ed Wood, she was absolutely furious when Eddie gave the leading female role in Bride of the Monster to Loretta King under the mistaken impression that King would invest in the picture. For her part, King -- who met Brett Thompson through a Hollywood memorabilia dealer -- seems genuinely innocent and totally unaware of all these backstage machinations. And that weird urban legend about her never drinking water? A silly lie, says King. She doesn't know how that story got started. 
  • By far, the best moment in the King interview is an anecdote about how a jilted and jealous Dolores Fuller called her in the middle of the night and asked her how it felt to steal a part which rightfully belonged to someone else. King, a veritable babe in the woods, was dumbfounded by this. As far as she was concerned, she got the part fair and square through her agent. I was wondering how Brett Thompson got away with including this potentially libelous story in his film, but on the DVD commentary, he said that Dolores owned up to it.
  • Ed Wood was sincerely religious, and he and Dolores made some elaborate 3D Christmas cards with Ed himself playing the role of Jesus. I'd seen a tiny, two-dimensional picture of Ed-as-Christ in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy, but Brett Thompson includes multiple images of these cards with the red and blue outlines intact. If you watch this part of the film with traditional 3D glasses, the effect actually works! I was pleasantly surprised.
Firebrand: Billy Sunday
  • We all know that the Baptist church which funded Plan 9 from Outer Space hoped to used the profits to produce a biopic about evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935). The Haunted World contains newsreel footage from one of Sunday's sermons, and it's easy to see why the well-meaning Baptist parishioners thought that Sunday was a worthy subject for a motion picture. He's a very dynamic and demonstrative speaker. In fact, it would have been difficult for any actor to outdo the real man.
  • Thompson could not get all of the surviving Plan 9 cast members to participate in The Haunted World. Bunny Breckenridge (the Ruler) was far too ill at the time. Dudley Manlove (Eros) was living somewhere "out in the desert" by then and couldn't be bothered. And Joanna Lee (Tanna) intentionally distanced herself from Plan 9 and Ed Wood after becoming a successful screenwriter. She wouldn't come anywhere near The Haunted World. Additionally, bodybuilder Steve Reeves, one of the stars of Wood's Jail Bait, begged off because he was afraid of being mocked. It's worth noting that Reeves did agree to speak to Rudolph Grey for the book Nightmare of Ecstasy.
  • For the most part, the interviewees were a joy to work with, says Thompson. Paul Marco, however, stuck around the studio to watch other people being filmed and took exception to what Gregory Walcott had to say. Marco also got into some sort of scuffle with Harry Thomas, which is hard to believe because Thomas is the easily the most forgiving and gentle person in the entire movie. The director even compares him to the title character from Forrest Gump. On his commentary track for Plan 9 from Outer Space included in The Big Box of Wood, filmmaker Ted Newsom alleges that Paul Marco was unbalanced and paranoid toward the end of his life. Perhaps that was the root of Marco's problems on the set of The Haunted World
  • While Kathy Wood is not interviewed and is barely mentioned during this movie, Eddie's first wife Norma McCarty is a full-fledged participant, as is her son Michael. Norma, a prim and sweet-faced grandmotherly type, says that she was scandalized by Eddie's drinking and cross-dressing. But she obviously felt no hatred or resentment toward the man because she stayed in contact with him after their marriage had failed miserably. Her role as flight attendant Edith in Plan 9 came after her divorce from Wood. Michael is more of a joke-cracking, knee-slapping wisenheimer who carries a ventriloquist's dummy with him for reasons that are not immediately apparent. It is only on the commentary track that we learn the doll was a gift from Ed Wood.

In all, Crawford John Thomas and Brett Thompson alike were quite pleased with the way The Haunted World turned out and were gratified by the film's warm reception from critics and fans. It got largely kind reviews and currently rates a very respectable 7.2 on the Internet Movie Database. Before the film found a cozy home on DVD, it played at film festivals both in the United States and Europe. The British Film Institute included it in their salute to Edward D. Wood, Jr., and Dolores Fuller took the film to Munich. Perhaps the highlight of The Haunted World's theatrical run was its premiere in Palm Springs, CA, an event which attracted Paul Marco, Vampira, Harry Thomas, Norma McCarty, and more.

It was, Thompson alleges, the largest reunion of "Ed Wood people" of all time. He may well be right. The event is lovingly documented on the DVD, and if you search around on the disc a little, you will find an adorable clip of Norma McCarty and Harry Thomas harmonizing on "Sweet Adeline." This has nothing whatsoever to do with Ed Wood, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Wade Williams gives his stamp of approval.
One name which is not mentioned aloud in The Haunted World but which appears very prominently in its opening credits is that of Wade Williams. We've talked about Mr. Williams before, you and I, during our examination of Night of the Ghouls last September. (God, I was so young and naive back then.) In case you've forgotten, here's a brief refresher course on this pivotal and under-documented figure in the posthumous career of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Born in 1942, Wade H. Williams III (not to be confused with the prolific character actor) is a wealthy film producer and exhibitor from Missouri who claims to own the rights to all of Ed Wood's feature films from the 1950s, including Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda?, along with dozens of other low-budget science-fiction and horror movies of the era made by other directors.

While some (read: Rob Craig) have praised Williams for preserving films which might have otherwise disappeared and become unavailable, others (read: Ted Newsom) have criticized the distributor for overstepping his legal bounds and making false declarations of ownership of movies which are truly in the public domain. Mr. Williams' own court battles over these films have not always been favorable to him. Here, for instance, is an intriguing legal article about Williams' failed attempt to sue the makers of Good Morning America over the use of clips from Plan 9 and other movies in a story about UFOs.

Is Williams a cinematic savior or a cultural claim jumper? That is not for me to determine. However, I do feel that the absurd and false notion that Ed Wood only directed five films -- an utter canard dutifully repeated by Gregory Walcott in The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. -- largely stems from Wade Williams' attempts to curate Eddie's film catalog and thus control Eddie's public image in the 1990s through DVD releases. Williams wants us to focus only on Ed's work from 1953 to 1959* because that's the era which best fits in with the version of Edward D. Wood, Jr. he wants to sell to the public: the kooky no-budget auteur with the fuzzy angora sweater and the old-timey director's megaphone.

The Haunted World can be interpreted, then, as Williams' most-elaborate effort yet to control the narrative of Ed Wood's life. Wade H. Williams III can take his place in line among Ed Wood's many postmortem spin doctors, including Harry and Michael Medved (The Golden Turkey Awards); Rudolph Grey (Nightmare of Ecstasy); Rob Craig (Ed Wood, Mad Genius); Ted Newsom (Look Back in Angora and Big Box of Wood); and Tim Burton (Ed Wood). Each of these fellows, depending on his predilections and prejudices, gives us his own personal Ed Wood. Perhaps the closest we can come to a "real" or "true" Ed Wood is a composite of all the different versions of the director we have been given over the years.
* A footnote here: the clips of Ed Wood's films provided by Wade Williams are unusually scratchy and have a weather-beaten appearance to them. Whether this was a deliberate choice by Brett Thompson, I do not know. Clearer, better prints of these films, especially Plan 9, are readily available to viewers. A bluish tint has also been added to many of these clips, but this effect is not consistent.

Still the Coroner: Meinhardt Raabe at age 86.
The viewing experience: While watching The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr., I could not help but flash back to another oddball pop culture documentary, Turner Classic Movies' Memories of Oz (2001), ostensibly a factual retelling of the creation of MGM's beloved Technicolor musical The Wizard of Oz (1939). TCM's 30-minute special stands out from all the other Oz docs because of its numerous eccentricities. It's clear that the makers of Memories of Oz wanted this production to stand apart from others of its ilk, such as Jack Haley, Jr.'s reverential The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Fifty Years of Magic (1990). While Haley's documentary is hosted by the venerable and wholesome Angela Lansbury, the most prominent celebrity guest in Memories of Oz is John Waters, director of such distinctly family-unfriendly fare as Pink Flamingos (1972) and Serial Mom (1994). Moreover, Memories displays an especially keen interest in film props, treating these objects with nearly as much care and attention as the human beings who had used them.

Without a doubt, however, the boldest decision made by the producers of Memories of Oz was to have the surviving Munchkins, by then octogenarians and nonagenarians, wear facsimiles of their whimsical and childlike costumes from the 1939 film. It is one thing to have the wizened Meinhardt Raabe, then 86, relate the story of ducklings who were accidentally dyed blue while swimming through the chemically-enhanced water on the Munchkinland set. It is something else to have him do so while wearing the ridiculously oversized, scroll-like hat he'd once donned as the Munchkin Coroner. Raabe could have been photographed while wearing a suit and tie, but someone in the chain of command at TCM felt that his anecdote would be more effective or memorable if he were wearing a costume as he told it. A producer who makes such a choice has, I would argue, left the world of "straight" documentaries and entered into the realm of surrealism.

This is not inherently "correct" or "incorrect." It does, however, suggest a level of authorial control that viewers may not expect from a documentary. That same sort of control, the palpable presence of a filmmaker who is micromanaging everything we see, is very much in evidence throughout The Haunted World -- and to a much greater extent than in the comparatively modest Memories of Oz. Viewers may not be comfortable with that degree of artifice in a non-fiction film. I personally was not bothered by it, since fakery is as central to the films of Ed Wood as it is to The Wizard of Oz. Movies paradoxically lie to us in order to convey certain truths. 

Viewers should pay special attention to this film's title and adjust their expectations accordingly. This is not The Haunted Life of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Instead, it's The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. There's a major difference between these two. The first (imaginary) title suggests a systematic or even scholarly biography of an individual filmmaker. The second (actual) title suggests a film which is more atmospheric and nostalgic than encyclopedic. And that's precisely what The Haunted World is.

Watching Brett Thompson's film is akin to taking a leisurely stroll through a curio shop. This is far from a definitive record of Ed Wood's existence on this earth, and it just barely serves as a historical overview of the man's film career. Instead, The Haunted World is more of a mood piece about Hollywood in the 1950s, as viewed through the filter of Ed Wood's career. At his comprehensive fan site, Ed Wood historian Philip R. Fry complains:
The focus is ... unrelentingly on Ed's classic period [of the 1950s]. Although there are shots of some of Ed's novels, and footage is shown from the filming of Orgy of the Dead, (the same footage used in [Ted Newsom's 1994 documentary] Look Back In Angora) there is very little said about [Ed Wood's] work after Plan 9. In fact, with the exception of small mentions of The Sinister Urge and Night of the Ghouls, the film completely ignores the whole of his output post Plan 9. While this approach is acceptable in something as specific as [the 1992 documentary] Flying Saucers [Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion], it is shamefully shortsighted from a film that is supposed to be a full reflection on Ed.
Googie's Diner: an architectural landmark.
But is this film intended as "a full reflection" on Edward D. Wood, Jr.? On the DVD commentary track, director Brett Thompson makes it very clear that his main goal with this film was to document the times in which Eddie lived and worked. Through this movie, Thompson wanted to magically recapture a version of Hollywood which had vanished many years ago. It is the faded glamour of the Ed Wood story which attracted and compelled Thompson, more so than the movies Eddie made. The director is obviously knowledgeable about the theaters, restaurants, studios, and nightclubs of the past and discusses 1950 architecture with gusto. He spends several minutes on the DVD talking about Googie's Coffee Shop, an influential and stylish Hollywood eatery where Vampira used to hang out with her pals James Dean and Marlon Brando, i.e. the "Googie crowd." Some of Eddie's old haunts -- such as Quality Studios, where Plan 9 was made, and the offices of Wood-Thomas Productions -- are recreated in this movie in the form of lovely and intricate miniatures, handmade by art director Gregg Lacy. (I'd love to have one of these wondrous dioramas for my own Ed Wood collection!)

Throughout the commentary, Thompson uses phrases like "faux grandeur" and "fake patina" to describe his movie, which is so formal and old-fashioned that it includes an overture, something studio movies had stopped doing decades previously. While he's a marvelous archaeologist of the semi-recent past, Brett Thompson does not strike me as an Ed Wood trivia whiz of the highest order. He struggles to identify Bride of the Monster at one point, for example, and calls that film's octopus a "squid." Furthermore, he does not challenge Bela Lugosi, Jr.'s (totally false) assertion that Ed Wood had a son, and he seems not to know what Final Curtain even was.

Ed's post-Night of the Ghouls career, meaning everything from The Sinister Urge onward, does not interest Thompson in the least, and he seems uncomfortable even discussing it. One of the panel of pop culture historians recruited for the DVD commentary inquires near the end of the track, "I want to know, whatever happened to Ed Wood?" Keep in mind, this man has just watched an entire movie about Ed Wood when he says this.

Solely on the basis of screening The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr., a viewer would have very little idea about the arc of Ed Wood's career and life. Thompson shows us the covers of Killer in Drag and Devil Girls, but he does not explain what these books are or when Eddie wrote them. And this is the only allusion to Ed's writing career you'll find in this documentary! Wood's screenwriting gigs of the 1960s and 1970s go entirely unmentioned. Likewise, some behind-the-scenes footage from Orgy of the Dead is included but not labeled in any way, verbally or textually. Orgy's director Stephen C. Apostolof, a key player in Ed Wood's life, is prominently glimpsed here but is unfortunately left anonymous.

The Haunted World breezily skips over entire decades of Eddie's life and pays little heed to the man's nearly quarter-century marriage to Kathy Wood. Why? Because these things aren't part of the story that Brett Thompson wanted to tell with his movie. It's clear that the director of The Haunted World's true passion was for the long-gone Hollywood of the mid-20th-Century, and Ed Wood provided him with a way of covering that world in a way that would be interesting and involving to modern-day viewers. This is less a documentary than it is an exhibition.

Towards the end of The Haunted World, there is a long, wordless montage in which the lights are dimmed on each of the individual witnesses, leaving them in darkness. The impression I got from this is that these folks are items on display in a gallery somewhere, encased in glass, and the security guard has turned out the lights at the end of the day. To borrow a phrase from Pulp Fiction's Vincent Vega (John Travolta), The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. is "a wax museum with a pulse."
In two weeks: "I don't believe in thinking small, so I've got a whole slate of pictures for ya!" So said Johnny Depp when he portrayed Edward D. Wood, Jr. back in 1994. And, verily, Eddie had a "whole slate" of movies he desperately wanted to make during his lifetime but never got to because of little inconveniences like money. His graveyard of unfinished and abandoned projects is more cluttered than that of many directors. What can we do to correct this injustice? Well, some filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to finish what Ed Wood started many decades ago. One prominent example is independent movie warrior Andre Perkowski, whose work I have already examined in a previous installment of this series. But I am too intrigued by another Perkowski title to let it slip by me. And that's why the next edition of Ed Wood Wednesdays will be devoted to (you guessed it) The Vampire's Tomb (2013).