Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 178: The Perverts (1968) [PART 1 OF 2]

The Perverts is sort of the Swiss army knife of Ed Wood books.

Artificial intelligence has been on my mind a lot recently. I think that's true of many of us, since we're bombarded with AI-generated songs, images, videos, and articles on a daily basis. It's getting difficult to know what's real and what isn't. And then comes the flood of ethical questions. Is AI an incredible boon to humanity or the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it? We don't know yet. I guess we'll have to see how this plays out. If, in 20 years, Earth is a smoldering husk ruled by artificially intelligent automatons, I owe you a Coke.

Eros warned us; we didn't listen.
Science-fiction writers have been warning us for decades about the perils of teaching computers to think, but we didn't listen. We did it anyway. That's human nature for you. We never consider the ramifications of our actions. Remember Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957)? The alien Eros (Dudley Manlove) tells pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott) that we humans have been building newer and more powerful weapons before we even fully considered the consequences of doing so. We're jeopardizing the entire universe through our stupidity and violence. Jeff responds by punching Eros in the face. Oh well. It was a nice universe while it lasted.

So far, I've found that artificial intelligence is quite good at mimicking and rearranging what already exists, even if the results are still slightly stilted and predictable. If you want a particular pop song, for instance, sung in the voice of a cartoon character, AI has you covered. Where it falls down is in true innovation and spontaneity. Ask AI to make a profound insight into the human condition or make us laugh in a way we hadn't even considered before, and it won't be able to do it. For now, only people can do those things.

But if we fed the collected works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. into some chatbot and asked it to churn out a "new" Ed Wood book? Or a whole string of books? It should be eminently possible. Although he had various modes or styles he would adopt as an author from one project to the next, Eddie had a definite cadence to his writing. There were certain beloved words and phrases he used time and again. He also had topics and themes that he returned to repeatedly. And much of his writing is already kind of stilted, as if it were being written by some nonhuman entity who had observed people without truly understanding them. Surely, then, a computer could absorb all of Ed's short stories, novels, articles, and nonfiction books and churn out dozens more for us to read in the 21st century.

The first book to emerge from such an experiment might very well turn out like The Perverts, which Eddie wrote for Viceroy under the name "Jason Nichols" in 1968. (That same year, he wrote Sex Museum and One, Two, Three for Viceroy under the same bland pseudonym, plus Hell Chicks for Private Edition as "N.V. Jason.") Put simply, The Perverts is a distillation of just about every Wood book and article I've read and reviewed so far on this blog. It serves as a Whitman's Sampler of Eddie's obsessions. If you don't have room in your life (or your bookshelf) for Ed Wood's dozens of nonfiction books and articles—most of which are about sex and crime—this one will give you a solid idea of what they're like.

As it happens, this is one of the books Rudolph Grey actually covered in Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992). He gives a brief but accurate overview of The Perverts and even includes a brain-boggling excerpt from it. Here, read for yourself:

"Slabs of pork liver."

This goes to show what a treasure trove Nightmare is. Like most Ed Wood fans, I have read Grey's book a hundred times or more. And yet, the part about people having sex with their cars must've slipped right past me until just a few weeks ago. (Come to think of it, Cookie Mueller wrote about something very similar in her posthumously-published Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, though she only mentioned the male side.) When I noticed that passage, I decided to investigate the rest of The Perverts to see if it lived up to or down to my expectations.

What I found is that The Perverts is one of Ed Wood's pseudo-factual textbooks supposedly based on stringent research. The author even claims in the preface to have "miles of tapes and a head crammed with data." Right. My colleague Greg Dziawer calls these Ed's "sociosex" books, and indeed The Perverts has that same preachy, socially-conscious tone as the narration of Glen or Glenda (1953). The point here is not to arouse or titillate. Far from it. Rather, this book's purpose is to educate us about sex so that we can be more understanding of those with various fetishes and predilections. You see, Ed Wood is trying to lead us to a brighter tomorrow. Never mind that the original edition of this book was heavily illustrated with pornographic pictures. (My edition deletes the photos, darn the luck.)

The Perverts is divided into ten chapters, each devoted to a particular theme common to the Ed Wood canon: necrophilia; troilism (that is, three-ways and group sex); prostitution; fetishes; sadism-masochism; bestiality; homosexuality; transvestism; incest; and lesbianism. Already, you may have questions. Namely, who is the intended audience for this book? It's not likely that there's a reader interested in all ten of these topics. Also, is Ed equating lesbianism and homosexuality with bestiality, necrophilia, and incest? Not really. There's a sliding scale here. Ed treats some of these alleged "perversions" with more sensitivity than others and even declares them to be quite common.

Because this book contains so much information and touches on so many subjects, I cannot cover it all in one review without that review being excessively, impractically long. Therefore, I will cover the first half of The Perverts this week and the second half next week.

It's no surprise that Ed begins his book with a chapter on necrophilia. After all, this is a theme that runs through his movies, like Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), Orgy of the Dead (1965), and Necromania (1971), as well as books like The Love of the Dead (1968), the latter notably credited to "V.N. Jensen." (I guess this was the Jason/Jensen era of Ed's career.) You could say that Ed was merely catering to the marketplace with this disturbing material, but necrophilia was such a stubborn motif in his work that it must have held some personal fascination for Ed himself.

In this one, jam-packed chapter, Ed Wood does a speed run through many of his favorite necrophilia-adjacent topics: the pharaohs of Egypt, serial murderer Albert Fish, Bram Stoker's Dracula, etc. Naturally, he fixates on the gruesome trappings of death itself, especially those smelly maggots that come to devour our corpses. "Maggots on a pile of suffering!" Ed exclaims. "No matter! The worms get us all!" Ed spends much of the chapter dwelling on the so-called Ghoul of London, a "necro-cannibal" who lived next to a cemetery, rather like the Trents in Plan 9. As far as I can tell, there is no historical record of such a character, so Ed must have made him up. Could he have been a fugitive from one of Ed's unproduced screenplays?

From there, we move on to troilism, an obscure term I know solely from Ed Wood's work, specifically the magazine articles included in When the Topic is Sex (2021). Although this chapter is supposed to be devoted to three-ways, Eddie lets his mind drift from topic to topic. He somehow believes that troilism has led to more widespread homosexuality, and by the end of the chapter, he's free-associating about birth control and the population explosion in ways that I'm sure made sense to him at the time. But what makes this chapter of the book stand out is that it contains the first of several totally fabricated "case studies" in which nonexistent interview subjects talk about their sexual histories. In this instance, it's a young woman describing her sexual initiation at the hands of a classmate named Sheila. This interviewee is also the first to fixate on sweaters. (What, you thought we were getting through an Ed Wood book without talking about sweaters?)

Chapter Three deals with prostitution, another hallmark of Ed's writing and film career. Even though this book is supposedly about perversion and sexual abnormality, Eddie goes out of his way to tell us how widespread prostitution is. From biblical times to World War II and beyond, it's always been a part of our lives, and the majority of Americans want it legalized. He goes so far as to claim that, in the 1930s, prostitutes were commonly seen on the streets of every American city and town. Presumably, this includes Poughkeepsie, where he grew up. Is it possible that Ed encountered such women at a very young age? 

As usual when he deals with this topic, Eddie talks about the hierarchy of the world's oldest profession—with classy call girls demanding higher prices than streetwalkers—and even finds time to talk about the crucial role that booze plays in the life of the prostitute. There are some interesting side trips here, too, like a description of a unique brothel in San Francisco called the Pajama Room where everyone, clients and prostitutes alike, wears pajamas. (If such a place ever existed, it left very little in the way of historical records.) Ed also writes about the importance of the infamous "casting couch" in the movie profession and even describes himself as a movie insider. Because of this, I'm actually a little surprised he didn't pen The Perverts under his own name.

Chapter Four is about the very broad topic of fetishes, and here I was reminded again of When the Topic is Sex, specifically the articles "A Thought on Fetish Love Objects" (1972) and "Origins of a Fur Fetishist" (1971). The theme of people fixating on "love objects" runs throughout When the Topic is Sex, but Ed really focuses on it in those two articles. This chapter is also where Ed Wood gives himself complete freedom to free-associate, editorialize, and philosophize. He starts out by talking about hair and clothing. But before long, he's talking about people who will kill to obtain their love objects. He also manages to discuss: drinking wine from shoes, Eskimos, motorcycle gangs, tampons, condoms, and shrouds! (Ed can steer nearly any topic towards a discussion of death.)

Along the way, without even being asked to do so, Ed gives us his decidedly unenlightened thoughts on race relations and the welfare system:
We are born from the pleasures of a mother and a father—or at least a man and a woman and most of us pray they will be the mother and the father. But there isn’t everyone who wants to produce some kind of an offspring. Strange as it may seem it is in the minority groups where the least deviations to sex are found. They hop on, hop off and usually bring up some kind of kid which the state will generally have to support until he/she is eighteen or twenty-one years old. 
Of course when we look at the problem that way, perhaps the fetishist isn’t such an ogre after all  … not the killer of course, but the one who simply collects his objects and takes them home for his own private sessions. At least it doesn’t cost the taxpayer for brat support. That, however, is an extreme in statement, but it does merit mention in the conception of thought.
Are you starting to see what I mean about the narration from Glen or Glenda? Just imagine Timothy Farrell as Dr. Alton reading those paragraphs above. That passage even uses the expression "strange as it may seem," which also turns up in Glenda. ("Strange as it may seem, even though it was a 'field day' as you so aptly put it, it's not a new story.")

Chapter Five is dedicated to sadomasochism—such a classic Woodian motif that When the Topic is Sex includes an entire S&M section, including "The Sado-Masochistic Saturnalia" (1972) and "Pain & Pleasure = Sado/Masochism" (1973). According to Eddie, this particular "perversion" is rooted in early childhood when we were spanked by our parents. Some of us enjoyed it a little too much and started getting into trouble on purpose. After that introduction, Eddie just starts rambling about ancient emperors before arriving at the story of a blonde actress who would "buy her men" at an all-male bordello in San Francisco just to torture them with lit cigarettes during lovemaking. Don't feel bad for the men, though. Eddie says they enjoyed it. Eventually.

In Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood very much wanted us to know the difference between transvestites and homosexuals. There may be some overlap, the film says, but they are not the same thing. In The Perverts, similarly, Eddie writes: "The murderer is not always a sadist, and the sadist is not always a murderer." Okay, good to know. The sadist simply needs to inflict pain, just as the masochist needs to experience pain. So they have a mutually beneficial relationship? Eh, not always. See, the sadist doesn't care if the person he's beating is a masochist; it just has to be somebody.

It will come as no surprise to the diligent Woodologist that The Perverts includes a discussion of whips and whipping. As I recently mentioned in my review of The Erotic Spy (1968), this particular form of torture was a career-long obsession for Ed Wood, even showing up in films like Orgy of the Dead (1965). ("A pussycat is born to be whipped.") I've never heard any anecdotes about Eddie using whips in his own private life, but he sure did like to write about them. In one of the book's many manufactured case studies, a man claims that it was his grandmother who made him enjoy being whipped. But Granny didn't limit herself to a leather belt; she'd beat him with a paddle or just her fists. Our interviewee loved it all and has carried that love into his adult life. And he insists he's not homicidal. He only likes to be hurt, not to hurt others. 

Wood ends the chapter with some more of his Glen or Glenda-type moralizing, aiming for a tone not unlike those educational films you watched back in high school. Except here, it's about cults and "thought schools" where violence is on the curriculum:
Violence is a great part of our everyday life in these days of strife. And we must look to much of those who turn on the violence as being of the sadistic values in fact one must have much of the sadistic values or they wouldn’t be out on the street with their guns, clubs and knives. Violence is taught in many of the so-called thought schools of this age. And the teachers are mostly sadists attempting to find masochists or form them. Hate is one of the most potent sadistic elements known to the cult. 
When one lifts the whip to strike the other he must have tremendous hate in his own being for the other or he couldn’t bring the whip down for the slash. And it is in that hate that the sexual drive is stimulated. 
In briefly taking up the sadistic murderer, he must murder out of context to the feeling in his groin. The groin can never be fully satisfied until the day of the grave  … But they will try and they will kill and be killed.
So, uh... let's be careful out there? I honestly think that there are times when Ed Wood forgot he was writing a sex book and instead just started pouring all of his nebulous anxieties and half-formed conspiracy theories into his typewriter.

And that'll do it for this week's article. We've only made it halfway through The Perverts, so when we reconvene next Wednesday, we'll tackle the book's final five chapters. A warning: things only get more bizarre from here. Stay strong.