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.


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.


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!


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?