Sunday, September 28, 2014

Comedy etiquette: How to be a good joke recipient

Harvey Kneeslapper and his frequent victim, Mr. Johnson, on Sesame Street.

Most of us know what to do in case of a knock knock joke. If you're not the one telling the joke, your responsibility is clear. You have two lines, both questions: "Who's there?" and "________ who?" Those are easy enough to remember. But what happens if the joke itself is in the form of a question? Are you supposed to actually answer it in an intelligent fashion, like you've really put some thought into, let's say, how many Christian Scientists it takes to change a light bulb? The answer is no.

Most likely, the joke teller just wants you to say, "I don't know." Practice saying that with me. I don't know. Good. If you really want to participate in the joke-telling process, you can say, "I don't know" and then repeat the original question, often with an emphasis on the second word. An example: "I don't know. What do you get when you cross a goat and an owl?" And then the joke-teller will tell you the punchline. That's how jokes work.

Don't try to guess at the answer. You're just wasting further time and making an already unpleasant experience worse. In fact, don't even bother with the "repeating the question" thing. Just say, "I don't know." Follow these simple guidelines, and you, too, can be an effective joke recipient.

By the way, it takes one Christian Scientist to change a light bulb. He just prays for the old bulb to start working again. And the unlikely crossbreeding of an owl and a goat would yield a hootenanny.

Good day.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

I hate, envy, and fear morning people

I might have to punch this spoon.

"I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night, 'cause I'm Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. What about getting up after five hours sleep? 'Oh, that's Morning Guy's problem. That's not my problem. I'm Night Guy. I stay up as late as I want.' So you get up in the morning. You're exhausted, groggy. 'Oooh, I hate that Night Guy!' See, Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There's nothing Morning Guy can do. The only Morning Guy can do is try and oversleep often enough so that Day Guy loses his job and Night Guy has no money to go out anymore."
-Jerry Seinfeld

Good old Æthelred
I get up at 5:00 every weekday morning. I also get up at 5:15, 5:30, and finally (for keeps) at 5:45. I am the King of the Snooze Button, a modern-day Æthelred the Unready. Literally, the word "SNOOZE" is worn out on my alarm clock radio. It just says "S   ZE" now. It's currently set to a point on the dial where it picks up two very staticky stations simultaneously (both in Spanish), and the volume is turned up all the way. The sound is, to put it mildly, not pleasant. Imagine two rival announcers yelling ads at each other in Spanish. And yet I'll still remain in bed, listening to that grating, cacophonous noise for many consecutive minutes to avoid getting up.

I have a second, battery-powered alarm clock, which I refer to as my "fail safe." Occasionally, that faithful little device has been the only thing which has kept me from missing my train to get to work on time. Usually, my morning routine involves staying in bed and negotiating with myself, as I decide which important, unskippable steps I'm going to skip before running to my car at the last possible minute.

Breakfast? Screw it. I'm not even that hungry. Maybe there'll be donuts at work. Shaving? Eh, I shaved yesterday. Besides, stubble is "in," right? Shower? Hmmm. Let me smell my armpits. Not too terrible. No one'll notice. And finally, the last concession: Brush my teeth? Hell with it. I've got wintergreen-flavored gum.

Are you starting to get the idea that maybe I'm not a morning person? Friends, I thought I would get used to waking up early after more than a decade at my current job. Nope. I'm still dazed, disoriented, and completely exhausted at the beginning of every workday. At that hour, I can fall asleep standing up while resting my forehead on the towel rack in the bathroom. That's happened a couple of times. At 5:45, I might as well be Keith Richards in 1974 at the depth of a narcotics binge. I try to read on the train, and I inevitably doze off after a paragraph which I've attempted to finish three times without success.

Despite all of this, I have no real desire to become a morning person, even if such a conversion were possible. I'm a confirmed night owl by nature, and I'll be damned if I'm going to oppose nature. Left to my own devices, I would actually go to sleep at around 5:00 in the morning, i.e. the same time I'm supposed to be waking up. I find that my most productive, creative hours are between midnight and four. That's when most of the Ed Wood articles are written... only on Friday and Saturday nights, of course.

On weeknights, I usually have to take Tylenol PMs to force myself to get some sleep, and even then I'm up until at least eleven or twelve. My self-imposed bedtime is 9:30, but I never make it. That's the time of day when I want to do stuff. Writing during daylight hours feels "off" to me -- not impossible, but not totally comfortable either. Like milk a day past its expiration date. Sure, you can still pour it on your cereal, but it somehow isn't as fresh-tasting as it ought to be. I don't even know where I'm going with that analogy, and a big part of that is because I started writing it when the sun was still out. The point is, I've dealt with insomnia for virtually all my life, but maybe the problem is that I'm just wired the opposite of most people.

For virtually my entire life, I've lived in suburbia, the natural habitat of the morning person. The 'burbs shut down at night. Everyone goes home and watches Dancing with the Stars or whatever. (By the way, did I ever tell you my idea for a cheap knockoff of that show called Prancing with Celebs? Well, I just did.)  Even in Chicago where I work, the financial district is pretty dead by six in the afternoon.

Recently, however, I made a pilgrimage to Manhattan, and there I found a world which was like the Bizarro version of my normal reality. When I got there in the afternoon, I thought the neighborhood was a shithole. Nothing was happening, and nobody was out except for the bums. The place didn't come to life until the nighttime. That's when the bars, restaurants, and other businesses really started hopping... and this was going on during the middle of the week! That's absolutely unheard of where I live. New Yorkers may find this to be all very commonplace and "boojwah," but it blew my mind. I had no idea people lived like that. It's a funny old world, isn't it?

Any thoughts you might have to share on this topic are welcome in the comments section. Night owls? Morning people? Make yourselves heard! Me, I'm going to drink some warm, just-expired milk.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 49: 'Take It Out in Trade' (1970)

Ed Wood also published an unrelated  short story in Trois magazine (1972) with the same title as this movie.

"An extraordinary performance."
I have been wanting to see Ed Wood's Take It Out in Trade (1970) for -- dear Lord -- twenty years now. Last week, thanks to the good people at Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives, I finally did. Like many of my fellow Wood-ologists, my interest in Take It Out began with Rudolph Grey's unorthodox biography of Ed, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

In Grey's introduction, he talks about what he learned about the director while researching his life. "Particularly exciting," he says "was finally locating a print of one of Ed Wood's last feature films, Take It Out in Trade (1970), a surreal sex comedy that proved to be a major discovery."

Later in the book, Ed's widow, Kathy, talks a bit about the film's origin and production, as do cast members Nona Carver (ex-burlesque dancer and former girlfriend of Kenne Duncan) and Michael Donovan O'Donnell, who actually appeared in some legitimate flicks (Paint Your Wagon, Dick Tracy)  as well as many prominent "B" movies (including Russ Meyer's Vixen and Greydon Clark's Satan's Cheerleaders and Black Shampoo) over the course of a 22-year Hollywood career. Towards the end of the book, in the annotated filmography, Rudolph Grey gives a fairly thorough, blow-by-blow description of Take It Out in Trade. Among his observations there:
This movie marked Wood's return to directing after a hiatus of ten years. [...] Visual puns and slapstick are intermingled with conventional softcore sex scenes. [...] There are odd touches of para-psychedlicism and surrealism. [...] The most remarkable sequence is a seven-minute segment featuring Ed Wood (billed under the name "Alecia") decked out in a lime-green dress, fluffy orange sweater, white plastic boots, and a blonde wig in an extraordinary performance.
SWV's version.
Now, tell me, what kind of Ed Wood fan could resist such a movie? I simply had to see it. The problem was, I couldn't. Even after Nightmare of Ecstasy was published in 1992 and became the basis for Tim Burton's Ed Wood in 1994, Take It Out in Trade did not appear on VHS or DVD for public consumption. After the big buildup it received in Nightmare of Ecstasy, Take It Out basically disappeared for two decades.

Those of you who have been following "Ed Wood Wednesdays" for a while may remember that I once reviewed a Something Weird Video compilation tape from 1995 called Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes, which consists of about an hour's worth of silent bloopers and unused shots from Wood's long-lost movie. In that article, I also provided a thumbnail sketch of Take It Out's convoluted history and supplied a rundown of its principal cast members. TIOIT: The Outtakes gives you an idea of the basic outline of the plot: wealthy Frank Riley (Duke Moore) and his snooty wife are unaware that their daughter, Shirley Riley (Donna Stanley),  has become a high-priced prostitute and is living and working in a brothel, so they hire a sex-crazed private detective named Mac McGregor (O'Donnell) to track her down.

The outtakes also give you a pretty good idea of what the sets, costumes, hairstyles, and actors look like. But even though it's interesting as a historical curio, the Something Weird tape does not even remotely convey the experience of watching the real Take it Out in Trade. This, then, I will try to convey to you. Keep in mind that I have only watched this movie one time and am writing solely from memory:

  • The version that Anthology Film Archives screened looked to have been transferred from videotape. The monaural sound was not exactly Dolby quality, but both the music and dialogue were quite listenable and distinct. The picture was a bit blurry, as if this were a second- or third-generation copy. (The AFA only says that its source was "digital.") Probably due to lack of proper preservation, the whole movie had kind of a yellowish-orange hue to it, like a slice of processed American cheese. But it's definitely watchable and in relatively good shape. The credited cinematographer here is Hal Guthu, who also worked on Love Feast. Guthu is no Bill Thompson, but he does yeoman's work behind the camera in this feature.
  • The opening credits sequence features a nude woman drawing on herself with red lipstick. She first colors in both nipples, then draws a floral-looking border around her pubic hair, and finally puts some dots and scribbles on her ass.  This strange footage is later recycled (verbatim, I believe) during an inexplicable montage midway through the film.
  • As an actor, Ed Wood is only listed as "Alecia," but he gets a proud "Written and Directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr." credit at the end of the main titles. And this isn't an opportunistic, latter-day addition either, like Rhino's DVD of Love Feast. Eddie's credit in Take It Out appears to be organic to the original 1970 print. For those ultra-purists who only count the feature-length films which Eddie wrote and directed under his own name, this is as much an "official Ed Wood movie" as Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda? Those folks can now stop saying Eddie only directed six movies. It's at least seven. (The real total is much higher, of course.)
  • Wood fans will likely be thrilled to note that he has reverted to his old habit of punctuating his film with bursts of thunder and lightning, just as he did in Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, The Bride and the Beast, Night of the Ghouls, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Here, though, the lightning is just represented by flashes of bright light, and he's added the image of a young lady opening an umbrella indoors for the "rain" which never falls. The effect, as always, is of God Himself angrily commenting upon the proceedings.
Michael Donovan O'Donnell
  • The entire film is narrated by its protagonist, middle-aged, mustachioed detective Mac McGregor. Actor Michael Donovan O'Donnell compared his character to Raymond Chandler's sardonic Philip Marlowe, but McGregor is more like Marlowe on giggle gas. At times, O'Donnell's voice is very similar to that of Ed Wood, so much so that I thought Ed might have been narrating the movie himself. But, no, it's O'Donnell. With his fuzzy sideburns, receding hairline, buck teeth, and slightly flabby physique, Mac is quite the unlikely hero of an erotic movie. Perhaps this character was meant to be relatable to the frustrated middle-aged men in the audience. Today, such a character would be a lean, toned, brooding Adonis about half O'Donnell's age.
  • At the very beginning, Mac tells us that Los Angeles is his "kind of town" and informs us that his main interest in life is sex, of which he gets a lot. He also boasts about his detecting skills, referring to himself as "The Chaser." That self-appointed nickname, of course, is a pun which hints at another major motif in this movie: booze. Seemingly everyone Mac encounters offers him alcohol, usually whiskey, and he always accepts. In one scene, Ed Wood's character all but forces Mac to drink, and the poor detective nearly chokes to death from the foul rotgut liquor Ed serves him.
  • Mac is kind of a shady, low-rent character. He says he has "two offices." One is in the bathroom of the Brown Derby, and the other appears to be in a Salvation Army thrift store. There are several exterior shots of the Derby, by the way, and it's nice to see that iconic Hollywood locale pop up in one of Ed's later movies. The revelation that Mac works out of the john is one of the movie's better-constructed gags. Mac has a handmade placard taped up over the word "MEN'S" on the wall, and we watch him take it down at one point and thus give away his true location. Take It Out is a relative rarity in the Wood canon in that it is a deliberate comedy with intentional jokes. Off the top of my head, the only other examples I can think of are the Wood-scripted One Million AC/DC (1969) and possibly the two Bunnies films Ed did with Steve Apostolof in the mid-1970s.
  • The movie was mostly filmed with synchronized sound, and boom-mic shadows are fairly common throughout. But there are other scenes which were clearly shot silently, with narration, dialogue, and sound effects added later. Eddie seemed to go a little nuts here, using patently silly, almost cartoonish voices and sounds for some scenes. I particularly remember one prostitute who says something like, "Baloney! You probably say that to all the girls!" in a ridiculously nasal voice. This technique is highly reminiscent of Glen or Glenda?, which also leaned heavily on post-dubbing and got some laughs from the odd accents and speech cadences of the voice actors. Musically, Take It Out seems to have been scored with stock music, mostly jazzy in nature. There is one musical motif in particular which I was humming for at least 20 minutes after the movie ended.
Nona Carver's big scene in Take It Out in Trade.
  • Actress Nona Carver remembers there being two versions of the movie: one softcore, the other hard. But the edition of the film I saw was strictly softcore: plenty of female nudity but only a smattering of very non-explicit simulated lovemaking in which the partners simply crawl on top of one another and start bouncing around, occasionally even keeping their underpants on. The fondling of buttocks is a major motif in this movie. 
  • Exposed penises are rare to nonexistent here. Occasionally, there are sex-related gags, as when we see a procession of three women coming down a fuzzy red staircase: the first topless, the second bottomless, and the third nude. Ed Wood was clearly sensitive of the needs of the horny men in the audience, but he still wanted to tell a complete story. Therefore, during the scenes in which characters have to discuss the plot, there are brief, totally non-sequitir cutaways to attractive nude ladies romping for the cameras. These moments are often accompanied by "wacky" xylophone glissandos on the soundtrack. You're never more than about a minute away from nudity at any given point in this film.
  • As you'd expect in an Ed Wood movie, the editing (by Wood himself) adds to the surrealism of the picture. It is flighty and free-associative, rather than strictly sequential and sensible. One shot does not logically lead to another, the way it might in a "normal" film. Unmotivated close-ups and unexpected montages are the keynote here. There is one extremely drawn-out sequence in which several girls dance and strip to psychedelic music. I wasn't sure where this was supposed to be taking place or what connection it had with the rest of the movie, thereby making this montage reminiscent of the  S&M "girly" footage George Weiss clumsily added to the dream sequence in Glen or Glenda? back in 1953. The purpose might have been the same here: to pad the running time.
  • Getting back to the plot: Mrs. Riley calls Mac at the Brown Derby to hire him to find her daughter. This conversation, intentionally or not, is one of the movie's comedic highlights, as the performances are extremely stilted, and the dialogue seems to lurch forward too quickly, as if the actors are only reading every other line of the script.
  • Mac visits the Rileys at their home. This is another quite amusing scene, as the detective tells the couple he gets "$200 a day plus expenses" and asks if they can afford that. The wife, who is reminiscent of Natalie Schafer as "Lovey" Howell on TV's Gilligan's Island, is offended by this and tells Mac that she and her husband are upstanding members of the community who always pay their bills. Her husband, Frank, is more direct: "We can pay." But Mrs. Riley won't let the issue drop and prattles on and on about what respectable people she and her husband are.
  • When Mac asks them if they have any clues to their daughter's whereabouts, Frank remembers that Shirley had been reading a lot about the hippies and flower children. But she couldn't be associating with such people, her mother snobbishly insists, because she wasn't raised that way. Ed Wood, who also edited this movie, takes great pleasure in undercutting Mrs. Riley by juxtaposing this scene with footage of Shirley entertaining her male customers.
  • Over at the brothel where Shirley is working, Madam Penny's Thrill Establishment, the other girls (including our pal Casey Larrain) are a bit annoyed that young Ms. Riley is getting the lion's share of the clientele simply because she's the new girl. It's worth pointing out here that Ed Wood has bestowed his own drag name on yet another female character (see also: Necromania, Orgy of the Dead, The Sinister Urge, Killer in Drag, etc.) and that Shirley Riley is portrayed in this film as an irresistible seductress whom all men desire and all women envy. The actress in this role, Donna Stanley (aka Donna Nation, aka Donna Pussie), doesn't appear to have worked with Ed Wood before or after this film, but did have an active career in exploitation movies from 1969 to 1974, including a lead role in Nick Millard's Fire in Her Bed! (1972). She also worked with Eddie's pal, Don Davis, on the PG-rated Swamp Girl in 1971, where she acted alongside country star Ferlin Husky.
  • It is also noteworthy that Madam Penny's employs at least one black prostitute, as African-American characters are extremely rare in Ed Wood's movies. I don't have a name for this actress, but other female cast members in Take It Out include: Linda Colpin, who also appeared in Love Feast with Ed in 1969; Monica Gayle, a softcore actress who graduated to TV roles (Fantasy Island, S.W.A.T.) in the late 1970s; and Lynn Harris, who's also in The Cocktail Hostesses. Among the male clientele at the Thrill Establishment is Lou Ojena, the mummy from Orgy of the Dead. He's easily spotted because he's a large, imposing guy who's built like a linebacker. Look for him in a scene in which a couple has sex on a pool table and the other revelers just try to work around them and continue their game.
A Canadian travel poster from the film.
  • By far, the single goofiest element of this movie -- and a major source of its entertainment value today -- is what Mac does after he agrees to take the case. Instead of doing any actual work towards finding Shirley, the detective decides to travel the world and charge everything to Frank Riley's credit card. I believe the total cost is something like $7500, which in today's money comes to $46,976.55. There are many shots of airports and travel posters throughout the film, something which is reflected repeatedly in the outtake reel. Mac's destinations include Greece, France, Italy, and Canada And what does he do while he's in these exotic foreign countries? Mainly, he spies on naked women like a back alley pervert while hiding behind fences or shrubberies with an irrepressible grin on his face. How he's able to see these women is unclear, since he's outdoors and they're indoors. He doesn't take binoculars or any other "spy" equipment with him, though. Occasionally, he does manage to have sex with a few of these ladies, perhaps prostitutes. Such travel montages occur at several points in Take it Out in Trade, and they have almost no bearing on the rest of the movie whatsoever, apart from a few scenes in which Mac sends the Rileys postcards, updating them on his progress with vaguely naughty double entendres, e.g. "working on a hot tip." These scenes are so blatantly gratuitous and silly that viewers have no real choice but to give themselves over to laughter, and they're perfect examples of Ed Wood's "decoupage" style of filmmaking, as Maila Nurmi once dubbed it. The director even recycles some footage of a randy Frenchman being slapped by an offended mademoiselle. When Mac sees this scene twice, he explains to us, he knows it's time to go back home. 
  • When Mac returns to America and actually gets cracking on the Riley case, he operates on the assumption that Shirley has dropped out of respectable society and wound up on the streets. His instincts are correct. Like all good detectives in these kinds of stories, Mac knows a few people in the criminal underground, and he starts his investigation by paying a call on Sleazy Maisie Rumpledinck (Nona Carver, also a supposed "Indian" in Revenge of the Virgins). Masie is an aging, broken-down junkie whore who lives on a very discouraging-looking street where soiled and discarded mattresses are accumulating outside. Mac says his flesh crawls every time he approaches Masie's foul abode, and his concerns are justifiable. When the detective arrives, Masie (who has a homemade "No Credit" sign on the wall) is with a customer: a dejected-looking, shirtless man who appears to be down on his luck. Once Mac and Masie are alone, he starts giving her the third degree. "You know all the girls on the streets!" It's actually quite remarkable how quickly the detective resorts to roughing her up to get the information he wants. Their roughhousing is so patently phony, however, that it's difficult to take offense.
Mac and Alecia in a rare calm moment.
  • Suitably shaken, Maisie leads Mac to the next link in the prostitution chain, specifically a drag queen named Alecia played by the rather puffy-looking Ed Wood in a green sweater, a matching green skirt, white vinyl boots, and an ill-fitting blonde wig. Despite his lowly station in life, the haughty and still-proud Alecia tries to maintain an air of respectability and claims that he threw Shirley out of his house because she was such a wildly-behaved hellion. Mac treats Alecia the same way he treated Sleazy Masie Rumpledinck, and before long, Ed Wood does cough up some information to the detective about Shirley's possible whereabouts. Before he leaves, the decidedly ungrateful detective takes the opportunity to snatch the wig off Alecia's head. After his departure, the seething transvestite vows revenge against this cad. "He'll pay. Oh, he'll pay." This sequence is an obvious highlight of the film and one which more Ed Wood fans should have the opportunity to see.
  • Onto the next set of pimps in the film's sexual food chain: a gay couple named (if I remember correctly) Paul and Henry*. Compared to the lisping, limp-wristed "fag" characters in later Wood films like The Beach Bunnies and The Class Reunion, Paul and his mate are somewhat more realistic and believable, if not exactly respectable. They are involved in a prostitution ring, after all. The fiercely heterosexual Mac seems slightly agitated and impatient with this couple, so they introduce him to their so-called "house mother," a curvaceous and flirtatious blonde bombshell named Ruth who wanders around wearing skimpy, see-through lingerie (another Wood motif) and blatantly exposes herself to Mac within a few seconds of meeting him. In the screening I attended, Ruth's improbable sexual aggression towards Mac was another source of audience laughter. After Ruth and Mac spend some time getting to know each other intimately, Mac tells her it was all business between them, and she kicks him out.
            *possibly Harry
  • By this point, Mac knows all about Madam Penny's Thrill Establishment and heads over there, weakly pretending to be a customer. He puts almost no effort whatsoever into establishing his alibi, but this proves irrelevant, as Shirley and the gals have been tipped off about Mac by Paul. Shirley is paranoid about the detective's arrival, since she thinks it means trouble with the law. She therefore devises a plan: when Mac arrives, she and the other prostitutes will gang up on him and tie him up, tearing off his clothing and their own in the process. This is pure male wish fulfillment, and many minutes of screen time are devoted to showing Michael Donovan O'Donnell wrestling around with a half dozen nude and semi-nude girls. In the outtakes, you can see that O'Donnell achieves an erection, but nothing like this appears in the finished movie.
More "pink clouds."
  • When she has Mac tied up and at her mercy, Shirley threatens to force him drink a cup of some beverage which will make him see "pink clouds." This is an expression which Eddie used extensively in his 1967 novel, Devil Girls, again to describe the effects of narcotics. Mac assures Shirley that all he wants to do is take her back to her parents so that they can see she is alive and unharmed. She is amenable to this and agrees to accompany him. The potential conflict which had been building between Mac and Shirley for the entire movie is thus defused in a very anticlimactic way. It was really nothing more than a slight misunderstanding, possibly exacerbated by Mac's rough treatment of previous suspects.
  • The suitably mind-boggling finale of the movie, however, proves that the real antagonists of Take It Out in Trade are wealthy, close-minded Mr. and Mrs. Riley, not their free-spirited daughter. Mac delivers the young lady to the family's very Brady Bunch-looking homestead, and the parents happily receive their prodigal daughter. But the merriment is short-lived, however, when Shirley announces her plans to return to Madam Penny's Thrill Establishment. Things go further downhill, naturally, when Shirley opens her trench coat and playfully "flashes" Mom and Dad. Frank is outraged and tells Mac he won't pay him "one red cent." Mac's retort is one of the best closing lines in any Ed Wood movie: "Then I'll take it out in trade!" With that, he scoops Shirley up in his arms and carries her away as his reward for solving the case. As a movie buff, of course, I couldn't help but think of John Wayne "rescuing" Natalie Wood in John Ford's excellent The Searchers (1956). Also, by having Mac say the title of the movie in its final moments, Ed has craftily turned Take It Out in Trade into a "shaggy dog story" or, perhaps, a dirty joke with an 80-minute setup before the punchline. 
  • Like seemingly one-fourth of all adult movies of the 1960s and 1970s, this one ends with a shot of a woman who has the words "THE END" painted on her bare bottom. Did every director who did this think he was the first to come up with it? Love Feast and The Undergraduate both conclude in this fashion.
And those, my friends, are my reflections on Ed Wood's Take It Out in Trade. Having finally seen this extremely rare motion picture, I can understand why Ed's widow, Kathy, referred to it in Nightmare of Ecstasy as a "cute little film," while Rudolph Grey deemed it a "major discovery." It's both.

Thematically, there's not too much to say. Once again, Ed was chronicling the counterculture -- a phenomenon he was too old and too out-of-touch to understand -- from the perspective of a horny middle-aged man. But this movie is much more forgiving towards the younger generation than many of Ed's other films and novels, and there is even some well-deserved razzing of the establishment, represented by Shirley's stodgy and status-seeking parents.

This is, quite simply, one of the happiest movies in the Wood canon. Compared to most of Eddie's X-rated films, especially those he made with Stephen C. Apostolof,  Take It Out is unusually playful and quick-paced, bawdy rather than raunchy, and refreshingly free of both rape and necrophilia. I got the feeling that Ed and his entire cast were having a dandy time making this movie. Michael Donovan O'Donnell, for one, is clearly enjoying himself all the way. And Ed's giddiness shows through, not only as an actor, but as a writer, director, and editor as well. He strings scenes and images together with the intuitive yet illogical approach he applied to his most famous films from the 1950s, like Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space. And, once again, the responsibility for taking all of these ingredients and making something coherent or cohesive out of them falls on the audience. Maybe that's part of the secret of Eddie's enduring appeal: his work encourages active rather than passive viewership.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pop culture made specifically for me

Kate "Oates" McCucci and Riki "Garfunkel" Lindhome in their IFC series. Also: a baby.

That's all of us. We're all jerks.
We all start out from a place of pure and perfect narcissism. As babies, we first acquire a sense of our own existence, and only later do we realize that -- hey! -- there are other people in the world, too, and they have thoughts and needs and opinions, just like we do. Theirs aren't as important as ours, but we have to care about them anyway or at least pretend to care for reasons of social convenience. That's the entire basis of human civilization -- people acting like they give a shit about other people. It's an extremely precarious situation; society could topple over in a light breeze, folks. Selfishness is our natural state. It's our eternal default. Sympathy and empathy have to be learned, and we have to work on them our whole lives... and that's only if we want to! Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we try and fail. And sometimes, we don't even want to try. That's why I say I'm a believer in what I call "the essential rottenness of the human race." The rottenness is easy to understand, and it's the root cause of wars, crime, bigotry, and all sorts of cruelty. If you're lucky, you have five working senses with which to take in information about the world and one functional brain with which to process that information. You'll never see with anyone else's eyes, hear with anyone else's ears, or think with anyone else's brain. It's only natural, then, that there will be many, many occasions in which we misunderstand each other or disregard one another's needs in favor of our own. I see it in my own life all the time. I can be a completely selfish, nasty, and inconsiderate bastard... and with very little prompting, too. It's not that I want to be one, mind you. Even at my worst, I'm trying to be a good guy. I just don't always (or even often) make it. Other people make niceness seem easy and natural, i.e. not a herculean effort. I envy them. I'll fess up to being a jerk, but I take no pride in my jerkishness. At the same time, I try to forgive others for their jerkishness. That's why I avoid using the term "self-indulgent." Whom can we indulge if not ourselves? Ultimately, no matter what you do, there's some internal motivation for your actions, some need or desire within yourself you are trying to satisfy. Who knows? Maybe Mother Teresa was being self-indulgent when she worked with lepers.

These are basically me at ages 10 and 8, respectively.
As a self-described narcissist , one of my persistent fantasies is that there are certain pop cultural artifacts -- mainly movies, but sometimes books, TV shows, or albums -- which are created specifically for me. The target demographic for these things is Joe Blevins and no one else. If other people like it, great. But Joe is the person we're trying to reach. I realize this is an absurd notion. If a movie or show reaches the public in any kind of mass-produced way, it's because some corporate weasels somewhere think there is a market for it. And this hoped-for market consists of multiple people, ideally thousands or millions of them, not one individual citizen. But, still, its a comforting, reassuring daydream. And it really does explain a lot of pop culture stuff that I enjoy. Before the music industry collapsed and people stopped buying CDs, I can remember long, leisurely trips to a (now long-gone) hipster record store. I'd stroll up and down the aisles, just browsing through the merchandise and occasionally being stunned by what I found. That process led me to the Orgy of the Dead soundtrack album, compilations by forgotten 1950s novelty acts like Nervous Norvus and Patience & Prudence, and two collections of quiz show themes, not to mention the entire canon of the faux-greaser gimmick group Big Daddy. I figured, who else but me would even want this stuff? Naturally, this delusion extends to motion pictures. Every year, I try to select one movie which is geared so specifically to my tastes, interests, and fetishes that I like to pretend it was made just for me. Past honorees of this nature include Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Femme Fatale, Punch Drunk Love, The Royal Tenenbaums, Frost/Nixon, and Room 237. I don't even care what you thought of these. They weren't for you; they were for me and me alone. I knew Tenenbaums was "mine" from the second I saw the poster, because Ben Stiller's two sons look exactly like what I looked like as a kid. It was like seeing a family photo in the marquee of a multiplex. How could I not endorse that movie? This year's most likely candidate for the award? Probably the criminally underrated Muppets Most Wanted. No lie. That film is an incredible achievement.

All paranoid delusions aside, there were two cases in 2014 which made me feel like maybe pop culture was being made specifically for me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 48: 'Rudolph Grey Presents: Short Films, Home Movies, and Other Miscellanea' (2014)

Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives.

Well, folks, I guess there is going to be an "Ed Wood Wednesdays" column this week after all, but it's not the typical sort of heavily-researched, carefully-constructed piece I usually do for this series. Instead, while the memories were still semi-fresh in my brain, I wanted to record some thoughts and feelings about attending the penultimate night of The 10th Dimension: Edward D. Wood, Jr., a week-long retrospective currently running at Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives (AFA). The AFA is not your typical movie theater. Instead, it's a nonprofit center for the preservation and exhibition of offbeat and rare films.

As its name suggests, in addition to holding screenings, the AFA is also a vast storehouse of films and videos, preserving these artifacts for future audiences. This year, in addition to a slew of other programs, the center decided to honor the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr. They've shown films both famous (Plan 9 from Outer Space) and obscure (Nympho Cycler) from Ed's entire career, with selections from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Tonight, Wednesday, September 17, was a very special show -- the linchpin of the entire festival, in fact -- because it was an assortment of rarities hosted by Rudolph Grey, author of Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992).

In order to give this article some semblance of structure, I'll break down my reflections by sub-topics.

I. ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES itself

The Internet was a good friend to me this time around.  Though the Comfort Inn where I'm staying is not exactly a five-star luxury resort, it is within easy walking distance of the AFA. So thank you, Internet, for finding this place and suggesting it to me. And special thanks to Google for providing easy-to-follow walking directions, even though I somehow managed to get lost several times on the way there and the way back because I have no innate sense of direction. You know that inner compass that most people seem to have? Mine was removed surgically at birth. New York City doesn't give you much help either, by having "1st Street" cross "1st Avenue" and "2nd Street" intersect with "2nd Avenue." I had to traverse all four of these similarly-named arteries to get from my hotel to the Archives.

I actually passed the AFA a few times because, with its red brick exterior, it looked more like a church or a school than a cinematheque. In fact, according to Wikipedia (which is never wrong about these things), the building used to be a courthouse before the film archivists moved in during the late 1970s.

This gives you an idea of what the
AFA's screening rooms are like.
Once inside the building, I noticed how humble and unprepossessing the lobby was: just a small waiting area and a lonely ticket booth with a bearded, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing dude inside. The biggest thrill for me, at least initially, was seeing that they had the New York Times article that mentions me displayed at poster size in the lobby. I mentioned this to Mr. Beard-O, and he just kind of shrugged and said, "Cool." He told me he hadn't bothered to read it and didn't really know which poster I was referring to. What can you say to that? It takes the wind out of your sails a bit, certainly.

I was getting a "semi-amateurish, mom-and-pop" kinda vibe from the Archives, but I could see traces of professionalism there as well. They show movies on at least two screens, for instance. One theater was located up a couple of flights of stairs, while another was on the ground floor. Every Wednesday seems to be devoted to showing the work of new filmmakers. I got there in plenty of time to see this week's chosen newbie: Shawn Batey's hour-long documentary, Changing Face of Harlem. The crowd was polite but very sparse. Unperturbed, Ms. Batey herself was there to introduce and explain the movie, which chronicles the rise and decline of Harlem, along with the gentrification that threatens to dilute the neighborhood's identity and drive away poor and middle-class African-Americans. Batey said she'd been working on the modest but provocative documentary for about 14 years now. The screens at the AFA have an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, but they are large, and the picture and sound quality are both quite good. Provided they promote the screenings themselves, young directors might well consider the New Filmmakers night at the AFA as a viable showcase for their work.

But this was all happening upstairs. Downstairs was where the real fun was brewing. A decent-sized crowd turned out for the program I'd come there that evening to see -- Rudolph Grey Presents: Short Films, Home Movies, and Other Miscellanea. There were enough spectators on hand to fill up the ground floor theater at the AFA. Let us now venture into the dank, humid depths of that exhibition.


II. RUDOLPH GREY, host/curator 

Rudolph Grey as he appears in Dad Made Dirty Movies.
I'd never met Rudolph Grey, musician and author, before this. But I'd certainly read his book, Nightmare of Ecstasy, countless times and seen him in documentaries like Jordan Todorov's Dad Made Dirty Movies (2012). So I recognized him instantly. I'd describe him to you as a combination of Tom Waits, a 1940s film noir detective, and mid-1980s Bob Dylan. Giving off an air of jaded, world-weary cool, he seems to hide behind his fuzzy hair, scraggly beard, and crumpled posture. But he's not imposing or intimidating in any way. He looked benign enough, so I thought to myself, "What are the odds that I'm ever going to be in the same room as this guy again? I have to say something."

This turned out to be a miscalculation. When I walked into the AFA screening room, Grey was seated in the first row, puffing on an e-cigarette and resembling a new millennium Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. I approached him with a smile on my face, told him how many times I'd read his book, and then stumbled through some semi-coherent explanation of who I was and what "Ed Wood Wednesdays" was all about. He was anything but interested and gave me the dreaded Queen Victoria "we are not amused" look. So I backed off, humbled, and went dejectedly back to my seat. Whoops.

Despite this initial setback, Rudy's presentation was funny and informative nevertheless. This is a man who has clearly done his homework (hundreds of interviews, he claims), and once you get him started talking about a topic that interests him, he can be downright effusive. But he can become taciturn or inscrutable at a second's notice, too.

The evening was co-hosted by a film historian somehow connected with the Anthology Film Archives -- a well-spoken, professorial, middle-aged guy with a neatly-trimmed beard and rimless glasses. (His name eludes me. Sorry.) I got the impression that he and Rudy were friends or at least had some history together. Generally, he asked open-ended questions, and Rudy either answered them or tried to answer them. You could tell, though, that the professorial guy had to do a little work to coax the answers out of Rudy, and there were a few times when the proceedings threatened to grind to a halt. Odd conversational hiccups abounded, you might say. Rudolph Grey doesn't say reassuring things like "yes" or "definitely." Speaking with a heavy New York accent, somewhat reminiscent of Peter Falk as Lt. Colombo, he's more likely to cut you off with "sure" (his favorite expression) or "right" or "of course" and then not say anything else after that unless you give him more prompting. (A typical exchange might go: "Is your apartment full of tapes from old interviews?" "Sure.")

Still in all, the conversation was chock full of valuable information for the aspiring Wood-ologist. Some highlights:

  • Rudolph Grey first became aware of Ed Wood in the early 1960s when Plan 9 from Outer Space and (later) Bride of the Monster started airing on local television in New York. But back then, he had no idea about the man behind the movies. "It was just a name to me."
  • Grey believes that Eddie's reputation as "the worst director of all time" started in the 1960s with such horror magazines as Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein, which would run stills from Eddie's movies like Plan 9 with derogatory captions. Despite this, Eddie considered Ackerman a friend. These film magazines, aimed at what Grey called "nerds," were where the "bad movie" cult around Ed really began.
  • Harry and Michael Medved's Golden Turkey Awards book brought Ed a lot of negative postmortem publicity and made Grey's work difficult in the early 1980s when he began his research into Wood's career. Nobody connected to Ed wanted to talk to Rudolph Grey because they didn't trust him or didn't understand his motives. Kathy Wood, Ed's widow, was especially hesitant to talk to Grey but eventually relented. 
Richard Bojarski's book.
  • Ed died, Grey said, just as Glen or Glenda? was catching on in a few cities as a cult movie. "Bad timing," he concluded. Grey didn't realize that, during the late 1970s, he could have just looked up Ed's name in the Los Angeles telephone directory and found him that way. By December 1978,, Ed was dead, and it was too late. Rudolph Grey never got the chance to meet or interview Edward D. Wood, Jr. One author who did was Richard Bojarski, who talked to Wood in 1977 as part of the research for his own book, The Films of Bela Lugosi (1980). Bojarski generously shared his archival material with Grey. I believe some the taped interviews that Bojarski did are excerpted in the movie The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. 
  • Grey bristles at the term "oral history," even though that's what Nightmare of Ecstasy really is. He says he chose the format of the book -- which consists of a string of quotes from Wood's friends and associates with very little commentary from Grey himself -- because writing a straight prose biography had not worked and, besides, he wanted to preserve the speech cadences of the people he interviewed. He modeled Nightmare of Ecstasy after Jean Stein's Edie: Girl on Fire, a book about Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick.
  • One of Rudy's first big accomplishments in his research was landing an interview with Ed's mother, Lillian Wood. Grey speculates that Lillian did not really understand what her son's life or career were like. When Grey showed her a picture of Bela Lugosi, for instance, she said, "Oh, I know him!" Wood also had a sibling, a brother, who was always jealous of Eddie and didn't want to talk about him. In deference to Lillian, Rudy left the brother alone.
  • Vampira, he says, started out as something of a snob. But he talked to her for hours anyway, and eventually she admitted that she had misjudged Ed Wood.
  • Since the initial publication of Nightmare of Ecstasy, most of the interview subjects have died. The plus side to this, Grey contends, is that he can now publish an updated, expanded version of the book with anecdotes that would have given people heart attacks back in '92. Pressed for an example, Grey mentioned a blabbermouth starlet who claimed to have been Ed Wood's lover.
  • The material being shown in this evening's presentation came from a group of films discovered at Los Angeles yard sale several years ago. Some Wood-related documents were also found at this sale. It was quite an extraordinary cache of Wood memorabilia. And speaking of those precious artifacts, let's get to them now.

III. THE FILMS









Tonight's program consisted of : two complete television productions, Final Curtain (1957) and The Sun Was Setting (1951), plus an extremely rare outtake reel from The Sun Was Setting with dialogue that didn't make it to the finished version; the generic but lovable Story-Ad television commercials (1949); about 15-20 minutes worth of Ed Wood's personal home movies; and finally the hysterical, Wood-narrated trailer for Fugitive Girls (1974). I have already done thorough write-ups on most of this material, so please follow the links to the appropriate articles to read my thoughts on these.

It was tremendously satisfying seeing all of these rare movies on a big screen with an audience. People came to this evening for a variety of reasons. Along with the die-hard Wood-ologists, including your humble narrator, there were those who simply wanted to watch something "weird" or "campy" or "so bad it's good." I even heard a few people behind me talking about other Wood films they'd seen and speculating that Crossroad Avenger (1953) must have been either written or edited by someone else because it wasn't offbeat enough to be Eddie's work. I refrained from correcting them on this point, but the truth is that not everything Eddie did was like Glen or Glenda? or Plan 9 from Outer Space.

One thing I learned from this evening, however, is that Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s work inspires laughter to this day. That's just a fact of life. Even though you may not want to mock or belittle Eddie, it is difficult to keep a straight face throughout the entire running time of Final Curtain, in which Dudley Manlove's apoplectic and absurdly flowery narration is juxtaposed with shots of bulldog-faced Duke Moore pretending to be bug-eyed with fear. The film moves so incredibly slowly, with Moore obsessing over each little detail in the darkened theater where the entire story takes place -- the lights, the windows, the seats, the stairs, the railing, the hallway -- all to compensate for the fact that virtually nothing is happening onscreen.

The same is true for The Sun Was Setting with its hambone acting and soap opera dialogue. The essential premise -- that the heroine, who seems perfectly fine, even vigorous, is so delicate that going nightclubbing in "the Village" for an hour would kill her -- is so stilted and unbelievable that the audience cannot help but giggle a little.

The berserk trailer for Fugitive Girls may have been the biggest hit of the night, with its nonstop barrage of shameless ultraviolence and hopelessly square references to "flower children" and "lesbians." Ed Wood's own narration contains a truly staggering number of sensational adjectives. The descriptive words just keep coming without mercy! Eddie must have written his copy with a thesaurus by his side!






IV. AFTERTHOUGHTS

Ed Wood at home.
On a more reflective note, the home movies are an incredible find. I'd seen some of this material before, but nothing like what was shown tonight. It was mostly from celebrations and holidays -- a string of birthdays and Christmases, all in the warm California sun. Along with the expected shots of Ed and Kathy Wood, you get glimpses of Valda Hansen, Kenne Duncan, Duke Moore, David Ward, and Tom Keene, along with many other unidentifiable folks -- friends and neighbors, most likely. There are many minutes of footage of Ed Wood in drag, both "camping it up" at parties and trying on various dresses, girdles, and sweaters at home.

Grey said that these films were probably made for Eddie's own private amusement and that the late director probably would not have wanted them included in a retrospective of his work. But here we were, watching them in New York City in 2014. Initial laughter gave way to awed fascination. These home movies give the modern viewer some insight into the private life of the Woods and show that the couple indeed had some happy times before those tragic last years of theirs. One recurring motif, for instance, is dogs and the happiness they bring to the lives of humans. The Woods and their friends were seemingly all "dog people," judging by these movies. Above all, they loved to see dogs imitate human behavior, whether that meant hopping around on their hind legs or eating birthday cake with a fork.

Everyone's smiling and laughing in these silent movies. Most of the time, they appear drunk, and they probably were. But there's something melancholic about them, too, because they seem like relics of a world that has passed away and cannot be recovered. Once again, I am reminded of Roger Ebert's so-called "8mm omen," which states that movies that begin with old home movies are rarely about happy lives. Ain't it the truth, brother?

Jesus, New York City, did you lose a war or something?

Thank you, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, for helping me kill two hours.Add caption

"Wow. That's a pretty big JCPenney. Not the biggest I've ever seen, but still... pretty big."

Those were among my thoughts, friends, when I got my first glimpse at the Big Apple in over a decade. I am here now, and the voyage was largely a nonevent, even a little dull. I chickened out at the last minute and decided to take a cab from my apartment to O'Hare rather than drive there and leave my car in overnight parking. This meant getting up at 4:30 a.m., but I must say I handled it like a champ. I arrived 90 minutes early, like you're supposed to do, but getting through security only took about four minutes for me. Hey, that's what your life is like when you're a part of the least-discriminated-against demographic in America.

So I waited at the Delta terminal in Chicago for a while before boarding. The airport was a lot like a very tidy, orderly shopping mall at that hour of the day. Everything is grey. Grey walls, grey carpet, grey-haired businessmen. It's just a functional, impersonal kind of place. I boarded the plane with no problem whatsoever, and the flight was equally uneventful.

This was my first voyage by airplane in a decade (at least), and it felt like a big nothing. It seemed like it was over before it even started. It takes much less time to travel from Chicago to New York by plane (one-third of the country) than it does to travel from Chicago to Indiana by train (one state over). One young lady behind me had a brief panic attack when we took off, and the flight crew had to give her an oxygen mask and assure her that everything was going to be juuuuuuuust fine. By the time we got to LaGuardia, which looked exactly like O'Hare, she was giddily taking pictures out the window of the plane and trying to spot the Statue of Liberty. Quick healer, that gal.

Click here for an article (on another website) about my previous trip to NYC. It was another cinema nerd pilgrimage. Back then, I headed East to see some of John Waters' rare movies and his art. Am I predictable or am I predictable, huh? For more about John's art career, visit this site.

Once I got to LaGuardia, it was surprisingly easy to get a cab. The cab ride, though, seemed to take a small eternity. Traffic was pretty darned heavy. I saw the same previews for Jeopardy!, Jimmy Kimmel, and something called Selfie (a new sitcom starring either Harold or Kumar) many times over on the little monitor in the back seat, along with a public service announcement urging us all to bump fists rather than shake hands because of the spread of germs and communicable diseases.

Once we finally got to the hotel, I realized I was staying in a pretty dumpy-looking neighborhood. Not post-apocalyptic or anything but nothing photogenic or memorable either. I mean, there are some gentrified-looking folks here with skinny pants and overpriced headphones. But there are also some lost souls wandering around outside: bedraggled folks who look like God just shat in their mouths.

When I got to the Comfort Inn on Ludlow, I was a little disappointed to see only two employees, a maintenance guy and a desk clerk, on duty in the cramped and dimly-lit lobby. Both looked supremely uninterested in whatever was going on around them, up to and including my arrival. I know that "good customer service" requires a level of completely counterfeit enthusiasm, but that fake cheeriness is kind of reassuring. The dead-eyed young lady behind the front desk, on the other hand, seemed to be doing a spot-on Kristen Stewart impression and just told me in an affectless voice to come back in a few hours. I tried asking her about the location of the Anthology Film Archives, but this was a total flop. After three unsuccessful attempts at spelling the word A-N-T-H-O-L-O-G-Y to her, we both agreed it was futile and gave up.

Starring Jessica Chastain's hair!
But what the hell was I going to do until the room became available? Here is where my inexperience as a traveler comes into play. I'm in (allegedly) one of the greatest cities in the world, and I have no idea what to do here. I just wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood (lower Manhattan), trying to get the lay of the land. In a way, this was comforting to a person who almost never travels.

You know what New York City has? The same exact stuff every place else has. People. Cars. Restaurants. Stores. Sidewalks. Hotels. More people, some on bikes. That's it. It just has a bunch of that stuff piled up in one place. That's all. In my travels today, I crossed at least two thoroughfares whose names I recognized from popular culture: Delancey and Bowery. And you know what these are? They're streets. Cars drive up and down 'em, and there are buildings on either side. Same as anywhere. Same as where you probably are now. "Oh, look, it's a different CVS! And a different Whole Foods!" Meh. Travel, I can take or leave. I don't genuinely feel like I'm "missing out" on much.

Anyway, to pass the time until my room became available, I did what any good movie geek would do. I went to the movies. The one theater within easy walking distance was a place called Sunshine Cinema. I decided to see whatever was playing closest to the time I showed up at the theater. That turned out to be something called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them with Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a miserable married couple who spend two hours pouting and sulking, both separately and together. It's one of those "bad things happening to pretty people" movies, complete with wishy-washy ethereal music on the soundtrack and cinematography that makes everything look like a high-end mail-order catalog. Boilerplate indie stuff. (Highlight the next sentence for spoiler alert about the plot: After the couple's infant son dies, the wife attempts suicide and leaves her husband without further explanation. The movie is mostly about the aftermath of those events. Pretty wild stuff, huh?)

William Hurt is in it, if that helps. He has a beard this time and squints a lot. Nobody actually sings "Eleanor Rigby," but that song does come up in conversation a few times. There are apparently two more movies' worth of this material: a Him version and a Her version. Neither sounds too tempting, since both of these folks are kind of petulant, entitled twerps; but given a choice, I'd take Him, because James McAvoy's half of the movie has Bill Hader in it.

On the other hand, Her would have even more of Jessica Chastain's incredible red hair. With such fiery locks and such pale, pale skin, you might think she was in danger of looking like Ronald McDonald. But she pulls it off. So majestic is the Chastain mane that there's a poster for this movie that literally features nothing but her hair. Not even her eerily perfect face. Just her eerily perfect, shampoo ad hair.

In fairness, I suppose I should say that the movie is well-made or at least well-constructed. It certainly looks attractive, and the actors seem to be truly committed to the material, especially Chastain. But the entire affair felt stagy and scripted to me, as if the characters knew darned well that we were listening in on their conversations. That's a downside for what's supposed to be a slice-of-life drama.

And a lot of the characters, well-acted, though they may be, seemed cliched, e.g. Viola Davis as Chastain's "sassy black friend." Davis plays an accomplished and worldly college professor in this movie, but her relationship with Chastain is still a distant echo of the Vivian Leigh/Hattie McDaniel dynamic from 1939's Gone with the Wind. You know what this picture needed? Guidance from the ghost of Ingmar Bergman. Ingmar could have made something special out of these ingredients..

Okay, time to get serious. Tonight's the night -- the event I flew 800 miles for. Wednesday is Rudolph Grey's once-in-a-lifetime presentation of rare Ed Wood movies. If only I could find the darned place.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays temporarily delayed by research for Ed Wood Wednesdays

Perhaps this eye-catching photograph will distract people while I'm away.

A little programming note is in order, people. Normally, I post a new Ed Wood Wednesdays article every two weeks, but that's not going to be possible this week because I'll be out of town. Way out of town, you might say. Ironically, what is preventing me from working on my Ed Wood project is the project itself. Or rather, one aspect of the project is muscling out another aspect of it. Tomorrow, folks, I'm flying to New York City so that I can attend the final two days of the Ed Wood retrospective currently going on in Manhattan. I'd be lying if I said I weren't a little nervous about all of this. Not that I'm afraid of flying. I'm just really, really bad at traveling. I have no knack for it whatsoever. I hate having to make arrangements and show up at certain places at certain times. I simply do not possess the organizational skills necessary for travel. So tomorrow will be a high stress day. Today has been a high stress day, in fact, because I've been dreading tomorrow. I feel like I'm going to take the SATs or something. It's been that kind of day. Anyway, I'm about halfway done on the next Ed Wood column. I'll be posting it in the near future. This one is exciting (I hope) because it's about a mystery movie which I did not plan on covering in this series. To quote an ad campaign from the 1980s which has stuck with me much longer than it should have, BE THERE! In the meantime, please wish me luck on this trip. I'll tell you all about it when I get back home.

P.S. - How do you like the new look of the blog? I spent some time this weekend making it over and have added some extra features to make it easier to find past content. I hope you like it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

This is just one of my favorite things: a Cisco Kid tin whistle

(left) My Cisco Kid tin whistle; (right) Vintage illustration of the Cisco Kid.

Behind those trees is the Beaver Island Toy Museum.
"It's funny how one can go through life, as I have, disliking bananas and being indifferent to cheese, and then be able to eat, and enjoy, a banana and cheese sandwich like this." So said Michael Palin as "Mr. Pither" on the "Cycling Tour" episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

I kind of know how he feels. I have no particular interest in either tin whistles or the Cisco Kid character, and yet one of my prized possessions is a Cisco Kid tin whistle. I suppose a lot of my affection for this little trinket comes from the manner in which I acquired it.

In the mid-1980s, my family started vacationing on a place called Beaver Island, a scenic but isolated tract of land located 32 miles off the coast of Northern Michigan. I'd estimate I was about 10 or 11 when we first started going there. Before then, most of the Blevins family vacations were to more obvious tourist spots like Mackinac Island and Cedar Point. Beaver Island is quite a departure from those.

The appeal of the isle is that there's almost nothing there: just a few humble restaurants, residences, and small businesses. The rest? Beaches, forests, and unpaved roads. It's the kind of place you go to when your goal is do nothing in particular for a week or two.

If you're so inclined, you can visit the Beaver Island Toy Museum while you're there. The fact that it looks like a private residence from the outside tells you a lot about the culture of the island. Inside, you'll find vintage dolls, model cars, and wind-up robots behind glass cases or suspended from the ceiling. But there are bins of stuff you can actually buy, too. That, as you may have already guessed by now, is where I acquired the Cisco Kid tin whistle.

Like I said, I have no particular nostalgia for that character. A Mexican caballero first created by American writer O. Henry, the Kid appeared in multiple formats (film, TV, radio, comics) from the 1910s to the 1950s, returning briefly in a 1994 made-for-TV movie with Jimmy Smits. I have experienced little to none of this. But I still have the whistle, and it still (pretty much) works. I mainly use it as a bookmark these days. Lately, it's been saving my place in The Real Frank Zappa Book.

Anyway, I have been't back to Beaver Island or the Toy Museum in well over 20 years. Wonder how (or if) the place has held up? In the meantime, I think I'll rekindle those fond childhood memories by listening to the one other bit of Cisco Kid-iana which has managed to breach my perimeters, namely the 1972 song by War. The lyrics apply manifestly to my life. The Cisco Kid really was and is a friend of mine.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Birthdays are still a thing, so I guess I'm having one.

This ritual happens each day across America and other countries where Facebook isn't blocked by the government.

This comment is about a creepy Dennis the Menace panel.
A congratulatory message from my insurance agent in my voicemail . An Amazon gift card from my sister in my e-mail inbox. A much-reused banner reading H-A-P-P-Y  B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y stretched across my cubicle at work. The clues are all there. Doesn't take Mycroft Holmes to put 'em together. Another year went by, and I didn't die. And now, as a result, it is my birthday. Personally, the allure of birthdays wore off for me about twenty years ago, around the same time as the allure of Christmas. They were fun once; now they mean virtually nothing. You might think that a birthday is at least a chance to take stock of one's life. Nah. I'm too tired for that shit right now. I had to wake up at 5:30 this morning to get to work on time. I was filling in for my boss today, which meant there was no time for lunch or breaks. Just work, work, work, then leave. It's cold here in the suburbs of Chicago, 48 degrees currently, overcast, and drizzly. Not the kind of day which makes you wanna go out into the world and give life a great big bear hug. I think I'm gonna curl up on the couch and watch some of the shows that have accumulated on my DVR. It's Friday, so there should be new episodes of Married, Garfunkel & Oates, and Black Jesus from last night. Good shows all. By far, the best thing that happened to me today was that I was awarded Comment of the Week on Josh Fruhlinger's Comics Curmudgeon blog for my review of a rather disturbing Dennis the Menace panel. That's always an honor. In other news/life updates, I have booked my flight and my hotel and, barring the direct intervention of God (in whom I do not believe), I am headed to New York City to attend the last two days of the Ed Wood retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan. I'm genuinely excited about that. Or I would be if I weren't so cold and tired. What this situation requires is an episode of Black Jesus, some root beer, and a good night's rest. In the meantime, I'd like to leave you with a song I've been listening to a lot this week for some reason. Maybe it just came up randomly in shuffle mode and I got stuck on it. It's called "Leave My Kitten Alone," and it's a catchy little R&B number from 1959 by the great and tragic Little Willie John, who died in prison in 1968 at the age of 30. As of today, I'm nine years old than he ever got to be. Go figure, huh? "Kitten" has been famously covered by both the Beatles and Elvis Costello, but for my money, there's no beating the original. Give it a whirl, huh? If you promise to listen to this song even once, that's the best birthday present you could give me.

Monday, September 8, 2014

'Comic book movies' do not exist. Stop using that stupid, stupid term.

This is a scene from a movie, not a comic book.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie success story of both the summer and the year. I'll admit, I haven't gotten around to seeing it yet. (I know, I know. I'm the worst.) But the reviews and the word of mouth have both been excellent, and I've enjoyed previous Marvel movies in the past. I don't begrudge Guardians its box-office bonanza. My problem is that the film's commercial triumph has meant that I've had to endure a spate of articles and podcasts lately which use one of the dumbest cliches of pop culture criticism: the term "comic book movie." Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie based on characters and situations originally seen in comic books, so people are referring to it as a "comic book movie." This is, with all due respect, utter horseshit. Comics are a medium. Movies are another, separate medium. Calling Guardians a "comic book movie" is about as logical and helpful as referring to something as a "solid liquid," a "day night," or an "apple orange." If director James Gunn had taken an actual, printed issue of Guardians of the Galaxy and literally filmed its pages for 90 minutes, then it might almost make sense to call it a "comic book movie." But from what I've seen, he seems to have hired actors like Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana to, you know, say stuff out loud and move around. Like you would in a movie.

A  comic book movie?
Plenty of movies each year are based on text-only novels, yet we don't call these "novel movies," do we? Movies based on plays are not called "play movies." So why is Guardians of the Galaxy a "comic book movie?" I fear it's because people mistakenly think of comic books not as a medium but as a genre, and they feel that adding the descriptive "comic book" to the neutral word "movie" communicates something about a film's plot, characters, and tone. Now, it is true that the medium of comics has some longstanding relationships with a few specific genres, specifically superhero stories and so-called "funny animal" stories. And Guardians of the Galaxy (the movie) has elements of both of those genres. But those longstanding relationships I mentioned are not mutually exclusive by any means. There are plays and TV shows and even prose novels about both superheroes and funny animals. Moreover, comics can and have been used for a wide variety of purposes, far beyond superheroes and funny animals. Comics are an extremely versatile medium which can be used for any number of things: drama, comedy, action, romance history, surrealism, horror, biography, autobiography, education, etc. From Hell, 300, Ghost World, and Persepolis are among the movies based on comics, and yet we don't often refer to these titles as "comic book movies" because they don't fit the traditional "superhero"/"funny animal" mold. The rather silly term "graphic novel" is sometimes used to describe such works as Alison Bechdel's autobiographical Fun Home or Art Spiegelman's Maus simply because the public has a strong association between the perfectly good term "comic book" and images of super-powered musclemen flying around in tights or wisecracking mice who walk upright and speak English. Yes, comics can be used for these things -- and very effectively at that. But they can do so much more, and it's a mistake to confuse medium and genre.

For a brilliant and entertaining exploration of comics and their potential, please read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. In the meantime, at least stop saying "comic book movie." It makes you sound like a dumbass.

P.S. - "Video game movies" don't exist either. But you probably guessed that by now.