Friday, September 13, 2019

Sure, let's do a comics roundup! What's the worst that could happen?

Let's just jump into it.

As another summer fades into autumn, blah blah blah... here are some comics. Is it mostly Mary Worth again? Yeah, probably.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 89: "That's Show Biz" (1972)

These are the movies that saved Hollywood, according to Ed Wood.

Hot Flicks magazine from 1972.
During his troubled and abbreviated life, Edward D. Wood, Jr. did the best he could to document his own career as a writer and filmmaker. He was proud of the work he did in those fields and kept updating his resumes with his accomplishments. When Eddie died at the age of 54 in December 1978, he'd only recently been evicted from his final apartment and was unable to keep many of his mementos from 30 years in show business.

Fortunately, since then, Ed's loyal fans have undertaken the responsibility of documenting this man's unique and fascinating life. Some of those fans congregate regularly on a Facebook forum moderated by Bob Blackburn, who befriended Ed's widow Kathy and became co-heir to Ed Wood's estate. Joining this forum has given me access to material I never would have known about otherwise.

Recently, for instance, punk musician and longtime Ed Wood fan Howie Pyro shared an interesting article that Eddie wrote in the early 1970s. Let's take a closer look.

The story: "That's Show Biz," originally published in Hot Flicks, vol. 1, no. 1 (1972) from Gallery Press. According to Bob Blackburn, Ed's resume lists this story as being written in 1971.

Synopsis: The motion picture business has come a long way in just 70 years, and the early pioneers of the medium would be shocked by what's happening on the big screen today. The public lost interest in movies after World War II, and theaters started shutting down. Things got worse in the 1950s when television came of age. People could see big stars in their own homes for free, so they no longer felt the desire to go to movie theaters.

In the 1960s, film production costs kept rising, resulting in higher ticket prices at the theater. Kids could no longer afford to go to the movies. Then pressure groups started complaining about the amount of violence in motion pictures. Meanwhile, viewers with their own projectors began to show 8mm movies at home. Theaters would have to do something bold to survive, so they decided to defy the censors and exhibit movies with nudity and sex. It would generate controversy, but it was worth the risk. Eventually, movies contained full-frontal nudity and "hard-core sex acts."

Movie theaters are once again thriving, thanks to these sexy films. Will it last? Who knows? Naturally, children are not allowed to see these explicit new movies, but they'll eventually grow up and, with luck, become the next generation of ticket-buyers.

Wood trademarks: Hollywood history (cf. Hollywood Rat Race); history of sex in films (cf. "What Would We Have Done Without Them?"); mention of classic cowboy stars Tom Mix and Buck Jones (two of Eddie's real-life heroes); random use of italics (cf. "Filth is the Name for a Tramp," "Cease to Exist"); ellipses (Eddie's favorite... punctuation).

Excerpt: "Nudity hit the screen in all its glorious body exposing delights. Slight nudity had been seen from time to time in foreign films and those theatres which showed such things were about the only ones who were surviving during those disasterous [sic] years for Hollywood."

Reflections: Edward D. Wood, Jr. always loved movies and grew up wanting to be part of the film industry. I believe that, if he'd had his druthers, he'd have made old-fashioned Westerns with white-hatted heroes and black-hatted villains. Either that, or Gothic horror films in the Universal tradition. The simple cowboy pictures and spooky Dracula derivatives that Ed preferred were already falling out of favor by the time he arrived in California in the late 1940s, however, so he made films that were more in sync with the public's tastes. For most of the '50s, this meant science-fiction (Plan 9 from Outer Space, Bride of the Monster) and crime drama (Jail Bait, The Violent Years).

By the mid-1960s, however, Eddie's film career had bottomed out, and the only work he could get was in sexploitation and, eventually, outright pornography. That's where he'd stay for the rest of his life. While this would be a crushing blow to any ambitious artist, Ed Wood tried at least to put a positive spin on the situation. In "That's Show Biz," Ed semi-seriously argues that the nudie flick has saved Hollywood. "Perhaps this second breath for the movie business," he writes, "will be enough to cure the cancer which so nearly devoured it during the last twenty years." So there you have it. Porn cures cancer. Kind of makes you look at the industry with more respect.

Ed Wood wrote quite a bit of nonfiction over the years, much of it for publisher Bernie Bloom. Bernie would hire Ed to write short stories for his mags and stroke books, but he also used nonfiction articles like "That's Show Biz" to pad out his publications. A lot of these articles are what I'd call capsule histories or pocket histories of topics related to sex, movies, crime, the occult, etc. The college articles I reviewed a few weeks ago are good examples. Eddie rarely includes specific dates or facts in these articles, and he uses real names only sparingly. My supposition, then, is that he did these with zero research and instead relied on his own memories.

Did anyone even read these articles back in the 1970s? People just bought these magazines for the pictures, right? Well, Hot Flicks, vol, 1, no. 1 carries a cover price of $4. That's nearly $25 in today's money. This was not a cheap product. So the porn connoisseur might want to get his money's worth out of this issue by reading every bit of text it contained.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 88: "Set To Go Off" (1970)

This week, Ed Wood gives us his subtle, nuanced take on the Vietnam War.

Bob Hope and Raquel Welch in Vietnam, 1967.
More than any other issue, the Vietnam War is responsible for the social divide known as the generation gap in the 1960s and '70s. Sure, young people had differences with their parents over lots of things—sex, drugs, music, art, fashion, hairstyles, race relations, etc. But none of those had the sheer, visceral impact of the war.

Young male baby boomers were being drafted into the military to fight and die in Southeast Asia, and they naturally began to rebel against a war they neither condoned nor even understood. The politicians sending them to Vietnam belonged to the older generation, the one that had survived the Great Depression in the 1930s and fought World War II in the 1940s. America's parents tended to side with the politicians. They'd gone to war, so why shouldn't their sons do the same? How was this new war different? No protest, no matter how vehement, could make them understand.

When I think of Vietnam and the generation gap, I can't help remembering an interview that author Richard Zoglin did with NPR's Terry Gross in 2014. Zoglin appeared on Fresh Air to discuss his biography of comedian Bob Hope, and the conversation turned to Hope's stalwart support of the Vietnam War. The author explained:
Bob had done his work [entertaining the troops] in World War II and then started up again in 1948, doing some Christmas shows for the troops. He did that through the '50s. When Vietnam came along, it was a routine. It was a yearly thing. At Christmas, he would go overseas, and his specials would be televised. Again, he was like maybe a lot of people from that generation. He was from the World War II generation. He could not conceive of a war that the United States wouldn't pursue to victory, that wouldn't be backed by everyone, the way it was in World War II.
Compare that to the sardonic lyrics of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," a 1965 protest song by Country Joe and the Fish, a psychedelic rock group popular among the youth of the era. This tune, a mock recruitment anthem, became especially legendary after the band performed it at Woodstock in 1969. Sentiments like these assuredly kept Country Joe and the Fish from ever being booked on a Bob Hope Christmas special.

Well, come on all of you, big strong men 
Uncle Sam needs your help again
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun
We're gonna have a whole lotta fun

And it's one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam
And it's five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates
Well, there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We're all gonna die!

Edward Davis Wood, Jr. was decidedly of the older generation. He was born in 1924, lived through the Depression, joined the Marines at the age of 17, and served his country during World War II. Though he greatly exaggerated his heroism, he was extremely proud of his military service and would speak of it often for the rest of his life. It's very doubtful that he would have had any sympathy for protesters or draft dodgers. Note that some of the characters in The Class Reunion (1972) speak with disdain about antiwar demonstrators. ("Nothing like those street apes ever happened when we were their age!")

War and the military are semi-common themes in Ed Wood's creative work, going back at least as far as his late '40s play The Casual Company. Among his short stories, we find "No Atheists in the Grave" (1971) and "The Wave Off" (1971), which both include mentions of combat but avoid naming Vietnam specifically. Jeff Trent, the square-jawed pilot of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), is another proud ex-Marine. And then there is Alan from Glen or Glenda (1953), who is drafted into the Army during World War II and serves successfully but whose penchant for cross-dressing makes him feel alienated from his fellow soldiers.

It's sometimes difficult to discern Ed Wood's true feelings about warfare. His magnum opus, Plan 9, is essentially a parable about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Eros the alien warns us that the human race will eventually build a bomb powerful enough to destroy the entire universe. (Jeff Trent responds, in typical caveman style, by punching Eros square in the jaw.) On the other hand, in Hollywood Rat Race, Ed refers to the atomic bomb as a "magnificent undertaking" and applauds the "many people of many trades" who helped build it.

Until Operation Redlight (1969) resurfaces, we may never get the definitive Ed Wood statement on the Vietnam War. Perhaps until then, we can draw some conclusions from a truly bizarre and outrageous short story published in 1970 and set explicitly during the Vietnam conflict. I'll warn you now that this is an ugly story with some very unpleasant racial and sexual themes. Only its cartoonish absurdity keeps it from being truly offensive.

The story: "Set To Go Off," originally published in Illustrated Case Histories, vol. 1, no. 3, November/December 1970. Credited to "Jacques Rippee." Anthologized in Short Wood: Short Fiction by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Ramble House, 2009).

De Palma's Casualties of War .
Synopsis: Wally Armbruster is an excellent soldier, even though he does things his own way and doesn't really feel like he belongs in the Army. One day, in Cambodia, Wally and his buddy Thomson are surveying a small village that consists of only a few huts. There, they find a pretty Vietnamese girl of about 16, whom Wally immediately identifies as a member of the Viet Cong. Thomson suggests taking her prisoner, but Wally wants to have sex with her first. While Thomson notes that the girl seems terrified, Wally insists the young woman is "set to go off."

Wally undresses, and the Vietnamese girl initially tries to fight him off before resigning herself to her fate of being raped by the American soldier. She says she is the last living member of her family; all the others were killed by the Americans. Wally asks her why she didn't clear out of the village when she had the chance. "Stayed for you," she answers. When Wally finally penetrates her, he realizes too late that the girl has turned herself into a human landmine.

Wood trademarks: Warfare (cf. "The Wave Off," "No Atheists in the Grave"); war brides (cf. "Tank Town Chippie"); basic training (cf. Glen or Glenda); ridiculous sexual slang (in this case, calling a woman's vagina a "wazoo"); euphemism for penis (in this case, "his staff"); mention of bobcat (cf. Plan 9); ludicrous twist ending (cf. many stories in Angora Fever and Blood Splatters Quickly); feeling a sudden cold sensation throughout one's body (cf. Orgy of the Dead); wordplay (numerous puns on "peace" and "piece").

Excerpt: "He looked down. There was a ragged pile of shredded flesh and splintered bones where the lower half of his body had been. His blood mingled with the blood of the girl. He turned and saw her. The look of horror was frozen on her dead face."

Reflections: I cannot claim to understand what was going on in Ed Wood's mind when he was writing these short stories half a century ago. All I really know about Eddie's creative process is that he wrote extremely quickly, often while eating, drinking, watching TV, and carrying on various conversations with friends. My guess is that he came up with the ending of "Set To Go Off" first and worked backwards from there. The entire reason this story exists is to unleash that ghoulish and improbable final twist.

But how do you get to an ending like that? One interpretation of "Set To Go Off"—and the one that bodes best for Ed Wood—is that this is simply a story about sin and punishment. Eddie is playing God and doling out some cosmic justice to arrogant rapist Wally Armbruster, who ignores the warnings of his buddy Thomson. Wally gets what he has coming to him, while Thomson (a possible nod to William C. Thompson?) survives unscathed. The end. Nothing more to it.

If that were the case, however, why would Eddie go out of his way to set up Wally Armbruster as "one hell of a good man in a fight" and "a true innocent"? The soldier's combat-readiness has nothing to do with the story, and Wally is anything but innocent by the end of it. Ed even includes an itemized description of Wally's clothes and tells us that this man "never felt like a soldier." These details help to humanize the character and make him seem more three-dimensional. The story is told in the third person, but Wally is definitely our viewpoint character until the very end, when he literally gets the last laugh. Does Eddie want us to sympathize with this guy?

Is it possible that "Set To Go Off" is actually an antiwar story, showing us that the conflict has brought out the absolute worst in these soldiers? It's not difficult, after all, to see parallels between Eddie's short story and Brian De Palma's controversial 1989 film Casualties of War, in which some American soldiers kidnap and rape a Vietnamese girl. Eddie is not coy about calling this a rape story. He even has Wally say to his victim, "Never saw a girl this scared to get raped." But Wally also insists that the girl "wanted" this to happen. Does Eddie agree with him or not?

In the end, "Set To Go Off" is one of the more upsetting and disturbing stories in the Wood canon, and it showcases the darkest corners of Ed's imagination. We're a long way from Glenda or Plan 9 here, even if the story does share themes with those movies. If we are to understand this man fully, we cannot ignore stories like this one, as much as we might want to.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood/Dziawer Odyssey, Part 11 by Greg Dziawer

This week, Greg orbits around Ed Wood.

If you had told me, when I began writing articles for this series back in 2015, that within a few years I'd embark upon the post-production of a lost, never-completed film shot in 1974 by an associate of Ed Wood, I would not have even remotely believed you. But now, after two years of work, that film is finally complete and will soon see the light of day via VOD and a deluxe Blu-ray disc from Darkside Releasing.

It all started with Operation Redlight, another seemingly lost film and something of a Holy Grail for Ed Wood obsessives. Wood wrote and stars in the 1969 film. Just weeks into writing these articles, I found a profile for Redlight's co-producer and cinematographer, Jacques "Jack" Descent, on Facebook. I messaged him, inquiring about the film, and was ecstatically surprised to hear back from Jack with previously unknown details about Redlight

Jacques Descent and Greg Dziawer in September 2017.
We became fast friends, Jack eagerly answering every little question I could think of. Then in his late 70s, he was enthused to go back in time to his years in the film industry, a quarter century after retiring from that pursuit. A little-known figure despite his nearly three decades in show business, Jack played a role in close to 50 feature films. He was a talented cinematographer and producer. Sadly, many of his projects, like Redlight, have faded into obscurity. Some, in fact, never even made it into post-production. One such unfortunate project was a softcore sex film from the early '70s he vaguely recollected as A Girl For All Seasons. He remembered nothing else, and my research efforts turned up nothing.

In late 2016, I received an email from Jack informing me that an archivist had contacted him, having found the original 29 reels of raw 16mm superneg footage and corresponding 1/4" Nagra reels for a film the archivist could not identify. In the first reel, the archivist noticed a poster hanging in the background for the 1967 softcore film Watch the Birdie...Die! Painfully, Birdie is another lost film. Like Redlight, it was directed by Don Doyle. On the poster, the archivist astutely noticed the producer credit for Jacques Descent. 

Just a handful of images from that first reel were enough for Jack to recollect that the film was A Girl For All Seasons. Produced and shot by Jack in Hollywood over three days in June 1974 under the working title 4 Dames 4 Dreams, the film wrapped production and then disappeared. Unable to raise the funds for post-production, Jack moved on without looking back, another lost film in his wake. 

Until now, that is! I requested the raw film materials from that archive, and they agreed to send them. We then had the audio digitized and the film reels scanned in 4K. Jack and I debated at length how the film should be edited. We had no script, just five and a half hours of raw film footage. Although the clapperboards suggested a linear narrative, we finally agreed upon it being non-linear, a blend of fantasy and reality. While the result is not quite Pirandello, it proved to be an ambitious and arty film for its genre, budget, and era. 

Jack engaged a few editors before finally landing on the right post-production crew, Rev13 Films in Montreal. When Jack passed in June of last year, the footage had been assembled into a rough cut that approximated the complete restored version.

While all of this was transpiring, I continued writing articles here on a (mostly) weekly basis. Through my research for those articles, I learned about Ed Wood's myriad connections within the sex film industry of the early '70s. Ed crossed orbital paths with the people, places, and things in that milieu far beyond what had previously been known. I realized that Dames & Dreams—Jack's final title for 4 Dames 4 Dreams—was rife with Woodian intersections. The following are just a few of them.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Loop Odyssey, Part 14 by Greg Dziawer

This week's film has that touch of mink.

As the 1970s wore on, hardcore pornography deepened its roots as a mass cultural object. This was a pioneering era that can never be replicated. We know now, more than ever, just how active Edward D. Wood, Jr. was in the sex film industry during these crucial years. And although we have a great deal more to learn, it's widely accepted that Ed played a role—multiple roles, really—in the production of 8mm silent porn loops.

The SE logo as it looked in 1978.
More than any other, the brand that led the charge of pornography into America's bedrooms was Swedish Erotica. I'll refrain from repeating myself and instead direct you back to previous articles in which I've obsessed over the ephemeral details in these short erotic films. Swedish Erotica loops were marketed directly to consumers rather than theaters or arcades. You had to supply your own projector and screen, and the films originally lacked sound, but at least you could watch them in the privacy of your own home.

Until the late 1970s, Ed Wood worked for a company called Art Publishers, Inc, which released Swedish Erotica films and tie-in magazines. The company was run by Noel Bloom, son of porn publisher Bernie Bloom. A decade earlier, Bernie had hired Ed to work in the West Coast office of Pendulum Publishers, Inc., which initially specialized in adult magazines and paperbacks. When Noel began producing adult loops in the early 1970s, he naturally recruited old pro Ed Wood to work on them.

The Swedish Erotica loop series arguably peaked in 1978. Well over a hundred loops were released to the home market that year. Ed passed in December of that year, but he had been penning subtitles for Bloom-family loops at least as far back as 1972, and he continued receiving paychecks from Art Publishers, Inc right into the final year of his life.

I've been transcribing the subtitles from dozens of loops for the last few years. These subtitles are odd throwbacks to an earlier, more primitive era of cinema, almost like the intertitles from silent movies. I've increasingly come to believe that the subtitles for the Bloom-family loops were written by Ed Wood himself. He likely wrote box cover summaries and even loop titles as well.

And that brings us to our next specimen: Swedish Erotica loop #146: "Blond Mink." This film, released near the end of Ed Wood's life, may not feature the most stellar set of subtitles I've come across, but it deserves some attention nevertheless.

The loop begins with a title card and credits. Three crew members are listed, but their names are different from those credited in earlier Swedish Erotica loops. A rather straightforward sex scene then ensues. Prolific porn performer Paul Thomas, a talented adult director in his later years, stars alongside blonde-haired Sindee Moore, who appears here without her usual colorful neck scarf. While the earliest Swedish Erotica loops developed narratives and characters and were shot with a careful artistry, those pretenses had almost completely evaporated by 1978. In "Blond Mink," the guy simply shows up at the girl's place, and they immediately get it on. Strangely, though, one last pretense was hanging on by its fingertips—the subtitles.

We are getting close to the end of the subtitled loops by Swedish Erotica #146, and the evolution of the subtitles through the mid-'70s mirrors the evolution of the narratives and artistry. The subtitles are so superfluous by 1978 that their existence seems utterly unnecessary. You'll see what I mean as you read the following transcript.

Girl: OHHHHHH...GOD... 

A pair of mink stoles.
That's it—a measly 14 words spread across four lines, totaling about ten seconds of screen time during this seven-and-a-half-minute loop. Incredibly, the last line appears while Paul and Sindee are still engaged in oral foreplay, loooooong before the loop's literal climax. In the earlier Swedish Erotica loops, that moment would have been accompanied by plenty of panting UMM's, OHHHH's, and AHH's. 

For those keeping score, "Blond Mink" has an average of 3.5 words per line. It's not the lowest average I've seen (that's 2.6), but by far, it's the least number of lines. As with other latter-day Swedish Erotica loops, the subtitles appear fittingly in purple.

Why even bother with the subs at this point? Old habits die hard, apparently. The subtitles died, too, roughly around the same time Ed passed. It's plausible that this is his work, but the text is so scant that there's too little evidence of Ed's unorthodox, highly distinctive writing style. That said, we do have two ellipses in the third subtitled line, punctuation oft-employed by Ed. And in 14 words, "tongue" appears twice. Ed's adult paperbacks and magazine short stories are rife with slashing, piercing, and darting tongues, either when his characters are kissing or when (as here) they're engaged in oral sex. The OHHHHHH, meanwhile, is just exemplary.

The title, too—and I'm again suggesting it was likely Ed's invention—is productive to interrogate. Knowing Ed's penchant for grammatical errors, I first thought it odd to see the word BLOND without an E. Upon further study, used as an adjective, Ed may have been right to utilize the masculine form of the word, especially in the United States. 

And then we come to the word MINK. Minks are carnivorous mammals related to otters, weasels and ferrets. We know them best for their fur. I have two of my grandmother's mink stoles, the old-fashioned kind with the heads still on, in my attic right now.

The blonde—the word is feminine if used as a noun and generally derogative—does, in fact, eat meat in the film, so perhaps being carnivorous is the reference. Given his angora affliction, it's also possible that Ed Wood had fur on the brain. Somehow, though, I don't think so. In one of his blond(e) moments, Eddie seemingly confounded "mink" and "minx." 

Urban Dictionary defines a minx as "an alluring, cunning, or boldly flirtatious girl or young woman. [She] has unusual seductive powers such that she could commit acts that would otherwise be considered inappropriate, while still maintaining an air of class or poise." That perfectly describes this film's leading lady. Surely, this is what Ed meant the title to reference. 

Ed Wood could very well have penned the box cover summary for this film as well. Though characteristically overheated in the most generic manner of porn, the word "luscious" jumped out at me as a word Ed used often for a full decade, going back to his magazine work at Pendulum.

A summary of the film. Note the spelling change in the title.

You can watch "Blond Mink" here. And keep watching this space for more dizzying updates as the Wood Loop Odyssey continues to spin out of control.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The saga of Rex Morgan and Brother Almonzo

Rex gets a little handsy in this latest adventure.

There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just say it. I read the comic strip Rex Morgan, MD every single day. Yes, I know that this is shameful. Yes I do it anyway. There's not much to this strip. Rex is a doctor. He's married to a woman named June. He has some really creepy kids. The cast is rounded out by various patients, people who work in Rex's office, and assorted friends and relatives.

Anyway, in his most recent adventure, Rex is investigating some phony spiritualists who claim to be able to heal people. He attends some kind of vaguely New Age seminar and recognizes one of the con artists, Brother Almonzo, as being Rene Belluso, an art forger from a story that happened several years ago. Rex takes Brother Almonzo aside and tells him the jig is up. In his desperation, the conman tries to bribe Rex. And then this happens: