Friday, April 25, 2008

JOE DANTE'S NEW BEVERLY MOVIE ORGY



In the age of instant gratification, when giant chunks of a studio’s back catalog of classic and not-so-classic films are available at the click of a queue button, once-in-a-lifetime experiences are a pretty rare commodity. But those in attendance Tuesday night at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles witnessed one, the real deal, to close out Dante’s Inferno, the two-week film festival hosted by director and raconteur extraordinaire Joe Dante. Dante delighted audiences throughout the series with picks from an eclectic roster of personal favorites (some of the prints shown were his), each introduced by the director with his typical self-deprecating humor and displays of his seemingly boundless, encyclopedic knowledge of film. But on Tuesday Dante brought out a real treasure to share with the faithful— the long-whispered-about but rarely seen Movie Orgy, a four and a half-hour-long melting pot of movie and TV clips pureed and reconstructed around the narrative spines of such trash classics as Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Beginning of the End, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and the teen rebel cheapie Speed Crazy starring Brett Halsey. (This “short” version—the original ran over seven hours—is actually billed on-screen as Son of Movie Orgy Rides Again; its origins, and much, much more, are discussed here.)

The Movie Orgy isn’t really a movie. It’s more like a hallucinatory party for the certifiably movie mad. What began in 1968 as a lark instigated by two creative movie fans (Dante and his close friend, future producer Jon Davison) soon became an event, an explosion of movie geek love that morphed into a small cult phenomenon-- the one existing print toured college campuses in the dark shadows of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War before being retired in the early ‘70s. Dante says before transferring it to DVD just before last Tuesday’s screening that he hadn’t seen it himself in nearly 30 years. And for years those who remember seeing it back in the day would recount their experiences with it to fans of Dante’s work who could only imagine the anarchic sensibility of the Orgy, the best evidence of it being the myriad ways it seemed to have informed Dante’s subsequent movies and his identity as a director.

Tuesday night Joe Dante’s fans began lining up at the box office at 5:30 p.m. for their own chance to see what the Orgy was all about. I was joined by my friend Aaron, who came all the way from Winnipeg for Dante’s Inferno. We were in the sixth and seventh spots in line and spent a half hour or so commiserating with actor Clu Gulager, a self-confessed film geek and a regular at the New Beverly, who was right behind us in the number-eight slot. (Also spotted in the crowd—Allan Arkush, Jon Davison, Bill Hader—one half of the police presence in Superbad-- Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino.)

When show time finally arrived, Dante seemed to relish his introduction; clearly he was curious to see what an audience 40 years removed from the one for which The Movie Orgy and its chaotic pastiche of ‘50s and ‘60s movie, TV, advertising and educational film references was intended, would make of the film. He reemphasized that it was always intended as a movie to be walked out on, and even went so far as to encourage everyone to get up and move about during the screening, take a pee, go outside, have a smoke, grab a pizza and come back at our leisure. This was a movie made for inebriation of all sorts, he suggested, before a last-minute warning about the general tastelessness and silliness we were about to witness. But this audience was already inebriated with anticipation and movie love—if Joe Dante was worried about how The Movie Orgy would play after all these years, he needn’t have been. In addition to being as spasmodically, recklessly entertaining as any four and a half-hour-long movie marathon I’ve ever seen (hmm, have I seen any others?), The Movie Orgy was remarkable as an opportunity to peek inside the brain of a brilliant movie director and see the nascent manifestation of a comic sensibility, political worldview and all-encompassing passion for low-fi moving images all rolled up and twisted together in an untamed package that can be directly correlated to the films he would spend the next 40 years bringing to life.


In The Movie Orgy, Dante and Davison boldly and proudly mash up the sophisticated and the sophomoric. Their slice-and-dice aesthetic is hardly random though; the narrative lines of those sci-fi movies that provide what there is of the Orgy's spine are routinely violated by the intercutting of TV commercials, patches of industrial and sex education films and political speeches (1968 being the point of origin here, Nixon gets kicked around plenty). Each time the movie lurches back into the “story” of whatever film is being revisited, the surrounding footage more often than not subtly, and sometimes not-so-subtly, provides deranged commentary on what preceded it. (One clip, from a children’s show hosted by Andy Devine, has the potential in sheer creeping weirdness to drop even the most jaded viewer’s jaw to the floor—it involves tying live animals, a cat and a squirrel, to tiny musical instruments and forcing them to perform while the endearingly off-kilter host giddily looks on.) What’s particularly exciting about The Movie Orgy is seeing Dante and Davison discover the comic and satiric possibilities of editing, juxtaposing found footage that draws out inferences and perspectives about the material, and about the burning world outside, that must have been heady and cathartic for the student audiences of the time who gobbled it up. Butted up against clips of Nixon, old footage exposing the casual racism of the time, and a genuinely weird Bufferin ad campaign which crops up throughout the program (in one of several varying scenarios, a caring, put-upon college dean frets about campus unrest, then pops a Bufferin to ease his pain-- “Strong medicine for sensitive people”), one starts to get a time-capsule picture of a world in chaos that might be unexpected if one was anticipating merely a hodgepodge of straight nostalgia for baby-boomers. (In his introduction, Dante pointedly drew parallels between that time and this—unpopular president, unpopular war, crumbling economy—before noting that the difference after 40 years is the absence of the draft, which added fuel to the fires of a generation’s distrust of establishment authority.)

But The Movie Orgy also finds Dante and Davison playing with the possibilities of editing in ways that presage their duties as the trailer cutting department for New World Pictures several years later. One bit finds what was originally a long take of a man trying to stuff a tennis racket into a suitcase shattered into fragments, extended and hilariously sandwiched between various clips over a half hour of running time. Each new piece builds upon the knowledge of the previous piece, the harsh cutaways adding an edge of absurdity to a bit of comedy that was droll at best in its original form. Entire episodes of TV shows like The Return of Rusty and Tales of the Texas Rangers are presented with full credits and lead-in sponsored commercials, only to have the body to the show reduced to a quick spasm of action—Rusty literally returning, a fistfight between Ranger and roughneck—before rolling straight into the end credits. And in the Orgy’s most transcendently riotous joke, whenever the Orgy returns its deficit attention to Speed Crazy, it’s to feature Halsey repeating a variation on his character’s sullen mantra, “Don’t crowd me, man,” which he apparently does at least 20 times. (The line was later directly referenced by teen rebel Paul Rudd in Dante’s terrific remake of Runaway Daughters.)

It’s worth noting again that the print we saw Tuesday night is the only print in existence of the Orgy. It traveled all around the country in various states of disrepair, patched together with glue and prayer, and was physically assembled, as it was often reassembled, by splicing tape with no visual reference point such as a Moviola screen. Just to contemplate this reality, in an age when any joe (lower-case) with a computer, or even an AVID editing system, could easily produce a similar, much slicker bombardment of images, is to understand the movie love and intelligence behind this anything-but-slick project. And this understanding adds a bittersweet edge to the experience too—every time I found myself thinking about how I couldn’t wait to see a bit, or the entirety of The Movie Orgy again, I had to remind myself that I probably never will.

The Orgy itself, building on the framework provided by Speed Crazy, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and those other titles, accelerates to a frenzy of chases and explosions, giant monster attacks and giant monster deaths, with an all-too-appropriate multiple orgasm of “The End” cards and a trail of Academy leader signifying the satisfying close to this by now close-to-hallucinatory experience. I have never seen a packed New Beverly crowd erupt into a standing ovation before last Tuesday night. I suspect if Dante and the New Beverly put together a Dante’s Inferno II, which is reportedly more than just a rumor, that it will not be the last. (Diablo Cody is up next with a festival of her favorites in July.)

One of the most heartening things to see emerge from the shadow of owner Sherman Torgan’s death last summer, and the series of genre and director-oriented screenings and festivals that have highlighted the New Beverly Cinema’s schedule over the last year, is how much of a true film community has gathered around the theater, turning the New Beverly itself into a bit of a cult phenomenon. Since making the theater a more than semi-regular habit over the past year, I’ve started to notice and recognize many familiar faces who undoubtedly attend screenings far more regularly than I, and it was my singular pleasure Tuesday to finally meet Sherman’s son Michael, who is doing such a fine job carrying on his father’s revival theater legacy. Especially for an event like The Movie Orgy, but even during the regular calendar, there’s a true, burgeoning sense of community and even camaraderie present here, a sense of shared experience and desire to see great, unusual, rare movies, but also to see the New Beverly survive. Programs like Dante’s Inferno, and people like the enthusiastic throng that greeted The Movie Orgy Tuesday night, feed this experience and strengthen the prospects for this now-unique enterprise surviving, even as the general experience of collective movie-watching yields to the isolated consumption of movies in the home theater environment. For those who feel the love, the New Beverly Cinema is a nightly movie orgy, one for which I wish long life and continued good prints.

16 comments:

Larry Aydlette said...

Beautiful write-up, Dennis! It made me feel like I was there -- and I wish I had been! So, let me ask the question for Lapper: how many bathroom breaks?

Editor A said...

This is your best fucking article ever! Pick this guy up, LA Weekly! Print this article, LA Weekly!!! Dennis has the goods!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Larry: Here's the truth. I did my dirty business just before the show, and other than a trip to the snack bar to get a Diet Coke I was glued to my chair. Seriously, I don't remember four and a half hours passing so quickly. And it was really neat to speak with Joe afterward-- he looked and sounded genuinely giddy, surprised at how well the movie made the 40-year leap..

And thanks, Editor A. Coming from you especially, that means a lot! Glad you liked it. I just wish you coulda been there!

Adam Ross said...

I felt the same way as Larry -- I really felt like I was there! Great job, as it sounds like "Orgy" defies description. I can imagine this being screened at some auditorium or make-shift theatre at U of O or Willamette.

You mentioned Dante transferring it to DVD, wouldn't that increase the chances of future screenings?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Adam. Apparently it did play the U of O Ballroom at the Erb Memorial Union sometime back in the day (about eight years before I got there, I'd guess)!

Re the DVD transfer, that was done simply so they could project it off of a DVD at the New Beverly. Apparently Joe wanted to circumvent any problems that might arise from projecting the 16mm. I realize now that I might have made it sound like he was prepping it for distribution or something. But due to rights considerations, that's never going to happen. He couldn't even charge us to get into the New Beverly Tuesday night, so the best theatrical experience of the year so far didn't cost a dime to see. Amazing. I'll be thinking of that when I fork over $11.50 to see Iron Man.

aaron said...

Dennis,

Your descriptions were so vivid and eloquent that I almost felt as if I were there...oh wait...nevermind!

I'm so glad that I got share this experience with you -- a movie-going event that has entered the upper echelon of my all-time favorite screenings.

aaron said...

Another fragmentary bit of film that I'm only now just recalling from THE MOVIE ORGY: the clipped segment from Richard Fleischer's SO THIS IS NEW YORK -- a film I'm longing to see, but has so far proven elusive (even Eddie Brandt's doesn't carry a grey-market copy!)

Jonathan Lapper said...

Editor A - Watch the language huh. I don't come here to see the word "article" written twice. I mean what the fuck? That word is fucking offensive. It's a post! :)

Larry, thanks for asking for me. For the curious, I took two bathroom breaks while typing this comment. One to pee, and another just to behold my beautiful visage in the mirror.

Dennis - I love this stuff! God I want to see it now. I love clip montages as it is but one as orgasmic as this one is an experience to be had once in a lifetime. O, what a lucky man you are.

driveindude said...

Dennis,

How do you think this would play at a drive-in event. For instance, the Tiki Invasion?

Is it the kind of smörgåsbord of clips that would play well to outdoors college campus types?

christian said...

THE MOVIE ORGY is one of the best nights I've ever had in a theater. The standing O at the end was incredible and deserved. And Joe even signed my copy of CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN!

Rick said...

I flew in from Milwaukee and chatted a little bit with Aaron while out in line.

This was by far the greatest experience I've ever had in a theater and I feel the same way that as happy as I am that I've seen the film, it pains me that I probably never will see it again.

Hopefully, Dante might leak the DVD so a bootleg could be picked up somewhere, but nothing can change the awesome energy that radiated throughout the theater tuesday night. I was so glad that so many people came out for this once in a lifetime event. Usually I hate when people are crowding me, but everyone was so excited about seeing the film and man did it deliver.

I think my favorite Bufferin ad was the one where the old couple is evicted and as the landlord takes his Bufferin, the aspirin for sensitive people, the house is being destroyed in the background.

Awesome job capturing the night!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Aaron: I'm glad my account seems to have somewhat resembled the movie you saw. By the end, I was getting kinda delirious, so I wasn't entirely sure! And once again, an honor to finally meet you, one of the first regular readers I ever had on this blog.

Jonathan: I just wish Joe would take it on tour again somehow. This is the kind of experience you wanna share with as many people as possible.

DID: It'd be great to see it anywhere, I suppose. But to really work at a drive-in, you'd have to see it with a big tailgate situation, where you'd have that sense of a communal viewing experience. Sitting alone or with just two or three others in a car, I'm not sure it'd be quite the same. But yes, of course, college campus types are exactly the audience for which this was fashioned-- albeit an audience that's now not in the '60s, but instead in their 60s.

Christian: I just missed you Tuesday night. I came up and started talking to Michael Torgan, and he said, "That guy that just walked away always comments on your blog!" And he told me who you were. I'll be looking for you next time I'm at the Beverly. It really was a transcendent night, and I'd agree, it was one of the best time I've ever had in a movie theater. I wish I'd thought to bring a copy of CoF! And I got a huge kick out of seeing Dante get his due with that standing O.

Rick: I am still turning those Bufferin ads over in my head. I don't remember seeing them when I was a kid, but if I did the awesome weirdness of it all would have surely passed me by anyway. I'm really glad you enjoyed the article. too. I think this was my way of being able, in the absence of ever actually seeing the movie again, to revisit it anytime I want. Hope it works in some small way like that for you and everyone else who saw The Movie Orgy.

Mr. Peel said...

I still don't know what to make of those Bufferin ads--how can they possibly be real? Either way, this was a very special night that I will remember and cherish for a long time. Dennis, your piece here is the absolute best that I've read on what we saw. You really tapped into how unique it was. For the record, I had one bathroom break and one more quick break later on to get a coke. Maybe like others, I didn't know how long I was going to stay but it was just so overwhelming that I couldn't possibly leave before it was finished. And that look on Dante's face during our standing ovation--it was a magical moment.

christian said...

The Bufferin ads were outrageous.

Craig Kennedy said...

Long time observer, first time commenter.

My New Beverly attention has waned in the last year just when it was starting to get really interesting. It's the story of my life, but another story, not the subject of this post.

Thanks for the nice write up of an evening I missed. I'm inspired to start making a habit of supporting the Beverly again.

It's one of those things that make LA liveable.

cat said...

This was an excellent article on the whole affair, I had an absolute blast at the Film Orgy myself and you captured all that fun. I can't wait for the next New Beverly adventure!!