Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ed Wood extra: 'The Unknown War Of Edward D. Wood, Jr.: 1942-1946' by James Pontolillo

What did you do in the war, Eddie?

Ed Wood: Portrait of the artist as a young man.
My learned colleague, Greg Dziawer, is still working on what should prove a fascinating article about an under-reported aspect of Ed Wood's career. Stay tuned for that next week. In the meantime, allow me to say a few words in support of an extraordinary new book called The Unknown War Of Edward D. Wood, Jr.: 1942-1946 by James Pontolillo. This volume, just released and boasting a foreword by Mr. Dziawer himself, contains a thorough and scrupulously factual account of Ed Wood's experience in the United States Marine Corps during World War II, starting with his enlistment in May 1942 and following him all the way through the war and beyond. Pontolillo based the book on official U.S. government records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

To be sure, this is an unsentimental and unromantic book. Its sole aim is to let fans know what Eddie's military career was really like. In addition to a detailed chronology, The Unknown War also contains facsimiles of the documents that Pontolillo obtained from the National Personnel Records Center. The author does not spare the reader from details that might be upsetting or disillusioning. I will not spoil any of The Unknown War's many revelations, because I want you to read the book for yourself.

Why is this book important? Eddie's stint in the Marines was clearly a pivotal event in his life. He drew on his war experiences for years in his films, books, and short stories. In addition, it is clear from reading Rudolph Grey's Nightmare Of Ecstasy that Wood never tired of discussing his time in the service with family, friends, and professional associates. The filmmaker knowingly cultivated and propagated what Pontolillo calls "the Legend of Battle Eddie." The colorful details have become integral parts of the Wood mythos. But how much is actually true? Read The Unknown War and find out.

To my mind, there is no way to understand Ed Wood without taking his military experiences into account. There is no separating the man's life from his work. They are forever intertwined. Trying to avoid talking about Eddie's military record would be like trying to avoid talking about his alcoholism or his cross-dressing. It can't be done. At least we should be basing our judgments on accurate, truthful information. That is what James Pontolillo's book provides.

P.S. While reading The Unknown War, I could not help but be reminded of this scene from the Coen Brothers' 2001 film The Man Who Wasn't There. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Loop Orbit, Part Eight by Greg Dziawer

John Holmes and a buddy in the 1974 loop Pier Passion.

The essential shape of Edward D. Wood Jr’s involvement in the murky world of 8mm porn loops of the 1970’s runs as follows:
- Ed wrote subtitles, per anecdote in Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy, for 8mm porn loops produced by Noel Bloom, son of Ed’s boss in his work as a magazine staffer. For a variety of imprints run by Bernie Bloom from the late ‘60s through the mid-'70s and beyond, Ed wrote short stories, texts accompanying pictorials, articles, editorials, photo captions. Any and everything, and he wrote at a pace equaling the total output of the other three or four writers on staff at any given time.
Beyond subtitling the loops, I believe Ed also wrote box-cover summaries (aggregated into catalog inserts included with individual loops). The general consensus among Woodologists remains that Ed “made” the first 19 Swedish Erotica loops. Those quotes are mine, loosely Ed-tributing to him the status as creative principle (i.e. director/writer/editor/cinematographer?) of those loops, and by reasonable inference, hundreds of others across dozens of other loop series. 
- Ed worked for Bernie and Noel Bloom for the better part of the last decade of his life, right up until the summer before he passed, in December of 1978. He left behind a hand-written resume which listed over 700 “short picture subjects” from 1971 through 1973. Some pages list a total number of minutes in the upper corner, and those totals correspond to the number of loops listed for that year times eight, as in eight minutes (the approximate length of the typical loop). 
- Ed worked in the field of loops, in other words, without a doubt. But in what capacity? That remains uncertain. In the hopes that the truth will reveal itself to me, I continue transcribing the subtitles of Bloom-family loops. As the pair comes close on the heels of the fabled first 19 Swedish Erotica loops, we’re focusing this week on the two-parter Pier Passion, starring none other than John Holmes
Swedish Erotica Loop #20 circa 1974
Art Director: Hilary Louis
Set Decorator: Davis Marsh
Script Supervisor: Carl Albert
Technical Coordinator: Jamie Wright
Casting: Stephanie George
Produced and Directed by Don A. Sweet and M.P. Ronaldo 
Two blondes on the pier, walking into and away from the camera as the credits conclude.
Blonde 1 (in tight black shorts and top): LET’S PLAY SOME GAMES…
John Holmes happens to be walking the pier, with his buddy. 
He’s referring to the girls, who are playing a game, and they know it. 
The girls approach the guys. 
John: HI, THERE!
The couples immediately pair off, John’s buddy walking off with Blonde 1, the two never to be seen again in this pair of loops. It’s a shame, as she’s played by the awesome Saundra/Brigitte, who appeared in a small number of Bloom-family loops for a short period of time circa 1973-1974.  
John and his girl walk into the camera, as we dissolve to an overhead shot of a mattress lying right on the floor, on a shag rug. The foot of the bed is adorned with a fuzzy red blanket, and the back wall of the room behind the bed is entirely curtained. No, we are not watching Twin Peaks. We’re on a highly characteristic set, familiar in its essentials from hundreds of other Bloom-family loops. 
John and Blonde 2 enter the set.
John undresses her down to a white bra and black panties, stockings and garter. Once again, John Holmes seems to be in possession of some sort of magical power. In this case, we don’t even get a sinlge line of dialogue devoted to a come-on. It’s not needed, of course, in the purest sense of this sort of male porn fantasy. 
Blonde 2: OHH!!!!
Blonde 2: AHHH!!!!
Foreplay. John goes down, and she returns the favor. 
Blonde 2: UMMM!!!
Dissolve edits as she services John orally, in close-ups. She wears an elaborate necklace. We have not yet arrived at the colored chiffon neckscarf, perhaps the signature of the endless Swedish Erotica series. 
John: Let’s do 69!
And so they do, now five minutes into the loop and still engaged in foreplay. 
Blonde 2: UMMM!!!
A ubiquitous prop in the Bloom-family of loops, John breaks out a large jar of Vaseline and scoops his fingers into it. (See also Swedish Erotica loop #7 Park Lovers for same.)
Guess what happens next?
Blonde 2: OH!!!!
The first part of Pier Passion ends without a climax (in the version reviewed here), the sex entirely vaginal, setting the stage for the follow-up all-anal finale. 
The onscreen title, as with other Holmes two-parters early on in the Swedish Erotica series:
Swedish Erotica loop #21 circa 1974
Although there are no credits on the version I reviewed, being a continuation of the sex scene from the first ensures it was made by the same folks. Unlike the first loop, which has an inordinate amount of narrative and sexual buildup, we begin here with a quick montage derived from the first loop, and then immediately fall into anal sex. 
Blonde 2: AHHH! TAKE IT OUT. 
This is very characteristic territory in the larger realm of Bloom-family loops. (See again Park Lovers, for near verbatim lines.)
Blonde 2: OHH!!!  
The inevitable - and in this case near-immediate - turnabout (i.e. the warped male rape-fantasy, a staple of porn then, before and since).
Blonde 2: PUT IT IN!
Dissolve edits…graphic anal sex close-ups. 
Blonde 2: FUCK MY ASS!!!!
Blonde 2: AHHHH!!!
Blonde 2: OH, THAT’S GOOD!!!
The remainder consists of anal sex, John coaxing his massive tool deeper into Blonde’s 2’s ass, as she claws at the blanket in cutaways. 
Blonde 2: FUCK MY MOUTH.
John: EAT IT UP.
We finally get the money shot we were denied in part one. 
Holmes. Always the gentleman….
Don A. Sweet and M.P. Ronaldo are credited as the producer/director of numerous Swedish Erotica loops of this era (including another two-parter, Horny Dreams, Swedish Erotica loops #30 and #31). 
John Holmes’ hair is starting to get frizzy, and his body starting to mature past it’s gawky stage. This is circa 1974, Pier Passion running concurrent to series including Blazing Films and John’s Girls. The artistic tropes, the set decorations, the editing, the performers…all of it is highly consistent across these and many other series, and the credits here (though likely pseudonyms) are clues to the creative principles responsible for the larger body of loops produced by Noel Bloom.  
It is evident though – in both Holmes’ appearance and the set decorations in those loops that correspond with decorations in the Wood-directed-and-written features Necromania and The Young Marrieds – that the first 19 Swedish Erotica loops were made perhaps a year or so prior to Pier Passion. (A fellow Woodologolist has an 8mm copy of the first loop in the series, The Virgin Next Door, carrying a 1973 copyright.)
Saundra/Brigitte, although she quickly disappears from Pier Passion at the outset of the first loop, connects together a clutch of loops. She is listed on box-cover summaries or in loop subtitles under these two names, but beyond her handful of appearances in the Bloom-family loops, nothing seems to be known of her. Although they are dressed differently, and it is in no way meant to be a continuation from Pier Passion, Saundra/Brigitte does feature in a loop with the same man as here playing John’s buddy. In BLAZING FILMS loop #8 Turning Him On (also released overseas by Color Climax as Exciting Film No 936, Housewife Pranks). Saundra/Brigitte makes a glass of orange juice, and her boyfriend comes over. They retire briefly to the same curtained room as the one in Pier Passion, although the rest of the set is entirely redressed, before heading back downstairs to have sex. Subtitled sex, repeating verbatim lines from scads of other Bloom-family loops. The Color Climax version from 1977 has no subs, and is dubbed into German. 
Back to Pier Passion. It, too, would turn up in 1977 in an interesting variant. Color Climax of Copenhagen was one of the world’s largest distributors of loops, and Noel Bloom would often release Color Climax films in stateside versions (yes, Ed subtitled silent Color Climax loops). On their Expo Films label, Color Climax released Pier Passion in a re-edit, and possibly containing some new footage. The re-editing consists of paring the meeting at the pier at the start down to bare essentials, then cutting right into the sex scene. The second part of Pier Passion as released by Swedish Erotica kicks in less than halfway thru Big Backdoor Boy (Expo Film No. 82), fitting (or perhaps barely or not), given the title.  
It has been shorn of subtitles, and the audio consists of dubbed German. It’s fascinating to see a film shot silent turn dubbed into another language, especially one released silent with subtitles in its original tongue. Most intriguing, the final subtitle of the second part of Pier Passion in the 8mm subtitled Swedish Erotica release version takes on a very different meaning. The version I reviewed of part two of the Swedish Erotica loop ends with John pulling his partner up off of the bed and we fade to black. In the foreign release-version, we cut to a shower, the girl on her knees in front of John, who pees into her mouth. The camera cuts close in on her, over the course of a mere twelve seconds, and THE END graphic appears (in a characteristic font for the US Swedish Erotica loops) as we fade to black, John “washing it off” per the subtitled version. 
So what’s going on here? This kinky twist at the end would not have been all that shocking circa 1974 in a hardcore loop. In all likelihood, I surmise (especially given the style of THE END graphic) that the version of part two that I reviewed was cut somewhere along the way. (Source: Blue Vanities Peepshow Loops 1970’s Vol 15, released on VHS in 1988.) 
The credits of Pier Passion remain a mystery. I have numerous speculations about a few of the creative principles likely involved, but it would run against my loathing of reckless mis-Ed-tributions to start making claims of collaboration without at least a reasonable inference. Allow me, though, this one stretch: I know more than a few devoted Woodologists who feel strongly that Ed Wood was involved in the set decoration of Necromania and The Young Marrieds, and by reasonable inference, the myriad Bloom-family loops across dozens of series. I increasingly agree with this viewpoint. The set decorator credited on Pier Passion is Davis Marsh. Davis, of course, is Ed’s middle name. I told you it was a stretch. 
By 1974, the Bloom-family of loops were beginning to crystallize into what would remain the flagship label of the Caballero Control Corp enterprise, one of the first and most durable porn behemoths. It’s intriguing to know Ed was there, working prolifically in various capacities, but the exact nature of his work in loops still remains elusive. 
We will overview the mysterious Saundra in a future Ed Wood Wednesday, a collaborator of Ed’s in that every line of dialogue she ever “spoke” on screen may very well have been written by Ed. We’ll delve deeper into the Bloom/Color Climax collaboration. And we’ll return to the Swedish Erotica series of loops. Subtitled 8mm versions of the loops continued past the first hundred and fifty loops, all betraying the same hand of authorship. 
Edward D. Wood, Jr.   

Monday, July 10, 2017

Brooklyn's Ambassadors of Love: More from the TMBG mailbag!

The two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell, choke themselves in this photo by Chris Cuffaro (December 1990).

I saved pretty much everything, every insignificant little scrap of paper, from my early days as a fan of the alternative rock duo They Might Be Giants in the 1980s and '90s. I have already shared some of that material with you here and here, but there is much more of it in my archives. Hence this third (and probably final) post. 

Just to show you I was not kidding when I said I saved everything from that era, here is a packing slip that was included with a TMBG baseball cap I ordered in 1992. I'm including it here because of the whimsical coffee cup design and to give you some insight into how low-tech TMBG's merch business was in the early '90s.

An official TMBG packing slip (1992).

And, yes, I still have -- and wear -- the hat.

Wearing my "TMBG: Building Better Music" hat (2017).
In the pre-internet era,
They Might Be Giants kept fans updated by means of printed newsletters like the one below. This particular example is from early 1990, a crucial time in the band's history. John Flansburgh and John Linnell had made the move from Bar/None Records to Elektra Records by then, and TMBG had just released Flood, its major label debut and still its best-selling album. With tracks like "Birdhouse In Your Soul" and "Particle Man," the LP brought They Might Be Giants lots of new fans, a fact that is addressed in the newsletter. 

But the fan club was still a humble, homemade operation by today's standards. Note the request for fans to send in two SASEs (that's "self-addressed stamped envelopes" for you youngsters). The back side of the newsletter makes reference to the aborted Purple Toupee EP and mentions a possible B-side anthology from Bar/None. That turned out to be Miscellaneous T from 1991. (More on that later.) Other items of note: updates about Flansburgh's new glasses and Linnell's new sax, plus a whimsical Mark Marek drawing of the title character from the 1942 children's book The Poky Little Puppy. TMBG appropriated that image, originally created by Swedish-American illustrator Gustaf Tenggren, and used it on merchandise in the late '80s and early '90s. And, as always, there are coffee cups.

TMBG newsletter from early 1990 (page 1).

TMBG newsletter from early 1990 (page 2).

Steve Skovran
What else do I have to share today? Well, here's a tour itinerary from December 1988. TMBG would have still been promoting Lincoln at that time. You can tell this list was typed on an actual typewriter, with a crudely xeroxed "They Might Be Giants" logo stuck to the top of the page. This was a very busy month for the Johns, taking them across the United States. They had very little time off to relax and enjoy the holidays that year.

Beyond that, this scrap of paper is like a glimpse into a lost world. Club Lingerie, a former hot spot on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, is long gone. So is the I-Beam in San Francisco. Ditto One Step Beyond in Santa Clara. The Starry Night in Portland bit the dust in 1991. The Sundance Saloon in Bozeman, Montana seems to have gone the way of all flesh decades ago, maybe not even surviving past 1988. Wally Gators in Madison, Wisconsin is likewise defunct.

Maybe the most puzzling listing is for a December 21, 1988 appearance on the MTV talk show Mouth To Mouth. Anyone remember this one? It was hosted by a comedian named Steve Skovran, who went on to be a prolific TV writer-producer (Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, etc.). The short-lived, totally forgotten show featured comedy by Skovran, live performances by rock bands, and animated bumpers by Bill Plympton.

A TMBG tour itinerary from December 1988.

Speaking of Lincoln, here's a press release from Bar/None regarding that album. It's a nice little snapshot of where the band was nearly 30 years ago, thrilled to have shared the stage with LL Cool J and Suzanne Vega. Also dig this bit of wisdom from Flansburgh: "I think we've also learned that our arrangements might actually be less fussy than they used to be. We tend to leave the kitchen sink in the kitchen now."

A press release for Lincoln from Bar/None Records (1988).

I've been debating how best to present some of these newsletters, since the text is smaller and may not be legible if shrunken down to blog-friendly size. And yet, I still want to preserve the original formatting of the pages. So rather than chop them up into pieces, I've decided to present them at a smaller size while encouraging readers to CLICK on them to see them at a larger size. Is that acceptable?

Okay, then, here is a newsletter whimsically titled "The Might Be Times" from December 18, 1990. This had been a year of triumph for They Might Be Giants, with Flood and "Birdhouse In Your Soul" burning up the charts in England. This newsletter gave the boys a chance to crow about their success, while also working in some information about Dial-A-Song and Miscellaneous T.

A TMBG newsletter from December 1990. Click to see at larger size.

Conveniently printed on the back of the December 1990 newsletter was the Winter 1991 newsletter. This was more housekeeping-type stuff about the mailing list itself, with reminders about address changes and the like. But there is some background information about William Allen White, the Kansas newspaper editor whose image was used in many TMBG videos and concerts in the early days. Again, you'll have to click on this to see it at a legible size.

Winter 1991 newsletter. Click to see at larger size.

You thought we were done? Don't be silly. The TMBG discography is now so unwieldy that it takes a team of experts to keep track of it all, but in the early days, the band's entire output could fit comfortably onto a single piece of paper. The fan club occasionally sent out copies of the discography back then, allowing fans to keep up with all the releases, and here's an example from 1990. Again, you'll need to click to see them at a legible size. I guess what's interesting here is that the discography is broken up into two sections. The material from 1985-89 (the indie years) is on one side, and the material from 1990 onward (the major label years) is on the other. Also take note of the cartoon Johns from the "Hotel Detective" music video.

TMBG discography, page one. Click to enlarge.

TMBG discography, page two. Click to enlarge.

Getting back to the band's innovative music videos, TMBG put out a VHS compilation of them called simply The Videos 1986-1989. The following ad for the tape could scarcely be more bare-bones, but that's how They Might Be Giants rolled back then. The Videos 1986-1989 was originally VHS-only but later came out on laserdisc. I swear I had a copy of the LD version but must have gotten rid of it years ago, probably when it was made obsolete by the Direct From Brooklyn DVD and, of course, YouTube. Silly me. The thing is now a collector's item, fetching up to $80 on Ebay. Whoops.

This was TMBG's entire video output circa 1989.

I think I'll close with a reprint of They, an elaborate TMBG newsletter from the fall of 1991. Once again, you're going to have to click on these pages to see them at a more legible size. The fan club newsletters varied wildly in size and format from issue to issue. They seems like an attempt to create a standard magazine-type template, but it didn't last beyond this one issue. TMBG didn't have a new Elektra album to promote that year, but they did have the Miscellaneous T compilation from Bar/None. In addition, the fan club assembled two pages of "Arcana From The Archives" to share with fans. Some really fascinating little oddities here, concerning Dial-A-Song, Lincoln, and more. The last page of They is the typical "TMBG Information Bulletin," this time giving a progress report on Apollo 18 and teasing a TMBG songbook that never happened.

And then, my friends, there is this quaint announcement:
It's hard to believe it's been five years since TMBG's first album came out, but it has, so we decided to have a party. John & John and lots of past and present folks from TMB Productions, Bar/None Records, Hornblow Music Management and Dubway Studios (where They Might Be Giants was recorded) gathered at a Manhattan eatery earlier this month along with family, friends and assorted hangers on to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Giants' debut album. It was great seeing all those folks together again for the first time and a swell time was had by all.
Could they have known they'd still be doing this three decades later?

Fall '91 newsletter, page one. Click to enlarge.

Fall '91 newsletter, page two. Click to enlarge.

Fall '91 newsletter, page three. Click to enlarge.

Fall '91 newsletter, page four. Click to enlarge.