There couldn’t have been more than 50 of us.
Many came wearing baseball caps and shorts, toting satchels and backpacks. More than a few wore tennis shoes. As for myself, I wore a loose V-neck T-shirt and khaki shorts—an odd uniform for the stately Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of New York’s most prestigious and storied performance venues.
“Well, you’re tempting fate,” I joke as my good friend Steven Kopian from UnseenFilms buys a large soda. He looks over at me, grins, and buys a popcorn.
We filed into a cramped theater, occupying the middle rows. The seats were uncomfortably close; my aisle seat afforded me only a precious few extra inches of legroom. I knew I would need them. Two days before, I spent an afternoon helping a friend move his bed to a new apartment. We lugged mattresses, box springs, and bed-frames 40 blocks across Washington Heights, the hilliest neighborhood in Manhattan. My calf muscles still screamed bloody murder if I sat too still for too long, and I knew that I was in for quite a sit. For the 50 of us didn’t congregate that Sunday afternoon for a movie. We came for something more; a communal gathering of film buffs, journalists, and bloggers that would test the limits of our physical endurance.
We came for an orgy.
* * *
In 1968, Joe Dante was a twenty-one-year-old college student struggling to make ends meet. One night, he went to a movie theater showing one of the old Batman serials churned out by Columbia Pictures in the 1940s. They consisted of 15 parts, each ending with a preposterous cliffhanger which was swiftly resolved at the start of the next episode. Altogether, the serials clocked in at around 260 minutes—almost four and a half hours. What impressed Dane wasn’t that the theaters showed them all back-to-back in one go; it was that people actually stayed through the whole thing. What’s more, these viewers were predominately college students who would break to the lobby every now and then for a cigarette, some beer, or popcorn. This sparked the germ of an idea.
An avid collector of old film reels and movies, Dante and a few of his buddies cobbled together their own version of a 4½ hour serial. A Frankenstein’s Monster of Z-grade horror movies, antiseptic 50s commercials, and the very best and very worst of mid-century television programming, their film was the ultimate cinematic oddity. Since none of them were professional filmmakers, the edits were so abrupt and messy they seemed to have been achieved with garden shears and sticky tack. The audio would drop out and drop back in at random; more than once the soundtrack would play over a black screen, the picture suddenly appearing after several seconds as if trying to catch up.
It was messy, hilarious, and overtly political. “It was made in the Vietnam era, so it’s anti-establishment,” Dante recounts. Among the detritus of so many crummy movie monsters and kitschy commercials, footage of Richard Nixon leered throughout the runtime—a good chunk of his infamous 1952 Checkers speech was included in its uninterrupted entirety. The film played fast and loose with copyright laws, stealing footage from classic movies like King Kong (1933) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Live concert footage of The Beatles and The Animals also snuck their way in.
So for legal reasons Dante couldn’t charge any money to show his bizarre creation. But as word of mouth spread, he found a financial savior in the most unexpected of places: the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. They figured that, while the showings of the film had to be free, no law barred the selling of concessions. So Dante and Schlitz took the film on the road, stopping at over 150 college campuses. Dante would tinker with the film for several years, eventually abandoning it in the mid-70s to focus on directing for Roger Corman. As he became one of the hottest names in Hollywood with hits like The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), and The ‘Burbs (1989), the project became the stuff of legend. The copyrighted material prevented it from getting a home video release; its unwieldy size made it both unprofitable and unpractical to screen at most theaters; and besides, there was only one copy of the damn thing.
That damn thing being simply and irrelevantly titled The Movie Orgy.
* * *
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) was showing The Movie Orgy as part of a Joe Dante retrospective. At the start of the screening the man himself came up for a brief introduction. Dressed in a comfortable pair of slacks and a brown vest, he answered one of my biggest questions concerning the film right at the start: is this something audiences are really supposed to sit all the way through? Is this like a 6 hour Béla Tarr film or some Michael Snow nonsense where we’re expected to watch the whole thing in one go in respectful, muted silence?
“This whole thing was designed to be walked out on. It’s meant to be an experience,” he almost chuckled. He said that it was shown sometime in the past at the MoMA, but he didn’t feel that was the proper venue for it.
“You can’t buy popcorn there!”
The Movie Orgy revels in the low culture of drive-in movie theaters and sticky-floored movie houses. To treat it as some immaculate piece of Art is to miss the point entirely.
“It’s in terrible taste and it’s in terrible shape,” he warned. The film reel was beaten up, pockmarked, distorted, and for some inexplicable reason branded with hardcoded Spanish subtitles.
But that was exactly what we were hoping for.
* * *
It didn’t take long for the film’s general rhythms to become apparent. 5-10 minute clips of various movies would play and then be interrupted by obtuse asides. One of the main movies featured was Nathan H. Juran’s shlock classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman—it, along with several other sci-fi films, would play in an abridged form throughout the entirety The Movie Orgy. After a scene or two of an emotionally unstable Allison Hayes running around the California desert, the film would abruptly cut to advertisements for Colgate Toothpaste, each one proudly boasting the benefits of its new ingredient GARDOL! Of course, none of the commercials mentioned what Gardol was or what it did—for all we knew it could have been repurposed pig testicles. But Colgate had Gardol, dammit, and that gave it a leg up above the competition. Once or twice the transitions between the film and the commercials were played for comedic effect:
“Doctor, what do you think is causing these strange UFO sightings?”
“Colgate Toothpaste, with GARDOL!!”
But these deliberate smash cuts were surprisingly rare. When they did happen, they resulted in some of the best laughs of the evening. My pick for the best one was an animated bumper of Mighty Mouse telling kids that they’re gonna love what comes next. It then smash-cut into a vintage tampon commercial.
But mostly we just basked in the individual absurdities of each segment: the cheap effects and stilted acting of 50 Foot Woman, the emphatic claims of the overbearing toothpaste commercials.
* * *
After about half an hour—around the time we had our first walkout—a thick veneer of irony settled over the film; we stupidly cheered at pulp heroics and applauded at the end of overblown melodramas. It was an odd cultural call-and-response. Sometimes we played along. Sometimes we didn’t. We met Howdy Doody with a knowing sigh of recognition; nervous, embarrassed laughter with Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu; boisterous cheers to the title cards of Tom Graeff’s Teenagers From Outer Space (1959); conspicuous silence during a George Reeves Adventures of Superman episode.
A couple hours in I did something I hadn’t done in years: I got a bag of popcorn. I suppose it was because it was a special occasion. And besides, Joe Dante seemed to think it was an essential part of the experience. So while Elisha Cook, Jr. screamed at Mamie Van Doren for staying out too late on a school night, I went into the lobby and got a bag. I came back in to the sight of Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog” to a mutt who clearly wanted to be anywhere else. I sat down and promptly spilled the popcorn all over my notes.
Almost an hour later, while shirtless Americans gunned down wave after wave of “Japs,” I started to feel groggy. So I stood up and walked to the back of the theater where a group of restless viewers had already congregated. Large groups had already begun to filter in and out of the theater. Some lingered to chat about their nostalgia over what they’d seen, some just checked their phones. After a time I went back to my seat only to find it stolen by an elderly lady. I shrugged and hobbled back to the exiles. I spent the rest of the film watching it with the bottom inch of the screen cut off by the row in front of me. But at least I had more leg-room for my screaming calf muscles.
* * *
Suzanne Collins said that one of the inspirations behind her mega-hit franchise The Hunger Games was a night of channel-surfing where she repeatedly switched between coverage of the Iraq War and game shows; the disturbing mix of violence and entertainment helped her envision her novels’ dystopian future. A similar thing happened while I watched The Movie Orgy.
I noticed unsettling patterns in the media being shown. The heroes all seemed to be reassuring authority figures: policemen, cowboys, Texas rangers, American soldiers, masked heroes with secret identities. All were invariably male, tall, imposing, and most importantly, white. I fully expected them to fight against monstrous Others like Native Americans or atomic monsters.
But what I didn’t predict was just how many of them had corporate sponsors. Superman sold Savings Bonds; Tarzan told kids to eat the right foods; Andy Devine led his Gang in a sing-along of “Jesus Loves Me” before telling his viewing audience to always go to church. The lines between corporate interests, the American military complex, and entertainment vanished.
What disturbed me the most was how much of it was specifically aimed towards children. Cartoon mascots spoke to the kiddies at home, live performers minced and beamed for studio audiences of little ones. I felt a growing resentment towards their efforts to control them. How would I feel if I was a kid and had this nonsense shoved down my throat?
Probably a lot like Joe Dante did. He understood, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, that schlock sci-fi and B-movies were expressions of the very soul of America. Its monsters represented nuclear fears and sexual anxieties. The pretty teenyboppers populating them were the plasticine facade of a society that hated and despised racial, cultural, and sexual aberrations. They were perfect Americans.
No wonder so many of Dante’s generation cheered for the monsters who gobbled them up.
* * *
Gradually the line between absurdity and normalcy shattered. A twee commercial for baby powder suddenly became softcore pornography, the two actresses stripping off their blouses, covering their bare breasts with the powder, and making out. Tense footage of a surgeon graphically carving open a patient’s chest gets interrupted by a surgical assistant handing the head doctor a cigarette with a pair of medical tweezers, a voice over announcing the superiority of their tobacco.
Several commercials for Bufferin threw us for a loop: they began like serious dramas, occasionally featuring ambitious cinematography such as interior bird’s-eye shots, before unexpectedly transitioning to the product pitch. The most shocking example was a man evicting an elderly couple from their home, half-heartedly promising the teary seniors that they’ll find somewhere new. Then he grips his head in his hands, seized by a sudden headache. A voice-over croons that Bufferin is for those who need instant relief caused by stressful situations. Cut to him smiling in his office, headache gone, the elderly couple’s building being demolished right outside his window.
As the hours crawled by, Dante took an increasingly direct hand in manipulating his footage. A live performance of Dion & The Belmonts “Runaround Sue” was spliced with Nazi officers swaying back and forth in a bar. Marlon Brando from The Wild One (1953) crashes a milk commercial. A native from “Darkest Africa” gives a rictus screech in response to a television program touting the perfect white-bread American family. In these moments one could find the seeds of much of the post-modern, absurdist, and anti-comedy entertainment dominating alternative media venues like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim or Youtube Poops. One running gag involving inappropriately timed ending credits getting thrown up at the end of trivial conversations or unexpected first-act plot twists predicts “5-Second Movies”, a precursor of Vines produced by Doug Walker, internet superstar and CEO of Channel Awesome, known to his fans as That Guy With The Glasses.
The repeatedly featured abridged films began to blend together into one super-film through the power of editing. Commando Cody did battle against King Kong. Brave pilots fought The Giant Claw while dropping napalm on a giant tarantula. Rufus T. Firefly and the other Marx Brothers fought to protect Freedonia from giant locusts. And Allison Hayes finally got her man.
* * *
At last the miasmic swirl of pop culture subsided. The credits rolled, the lights came back up. We looked at our watches and confirmed that, yes, almost 5 hours had gone by. I left the theater with a fistful of business cards and about a dozen inside jokes known only to those who had sat through the whole thing (“Don’t crowd me, man!!” “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!”). We felt like veterans, survivors even, of some great happening. Steve and I chatted with a gray-haired man who reminisced about seeing it in the 70s—apparently the original 7-hour cut had a lot more footage from The Giant Claw (1957). But five hours was enough for me.
As we walked to the subway station, I wondered out loud whether different generations responded differently to the films and television shows featured. Steve said that they had to—most of the things shown came decades before many of the audience members had even been born. Fair enough, but with the dawn of the internet age the entirety of American pop culture has never been more readily accessible.
Many of the films spliced into The Movie Orgy were ones I knew intimately well from old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I had never seen any episodes of MST3K while it was on Comedy Central or the Sci-Fi Network; I had only seen low-res VHS recordings on youtube. But because of my online access to the show, I’m willing to bet I was more familiar with Ray Kellogg’s The Giant Gila Monster (1959) than most of the people in the audience who had seen it when it first came out. I certainly laughed the hardest when the Mexican beaded lizard used for the effects shots crawled onscreen the first time.
And don’t think I didn’t notice that the first person in the theater to vocally identify Rin-Tin-Tin when he appeared was a young twentysomething hipster.