Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Archetypes

As we are still in the early stages, the feeling-each-other-out stages, the getting to know one another stages, I thought I’d share a little more about myself. Not some boring biography—that’d be boring even for me, so I can only assume it would prove even moreso for you all—rather, I decided to tell you more about myself by telling you about others—namely, my major influences, my heroes, as it were. My inspirations. There are more than a few, as you might imagine, but only a handful that I would term major inspirations. Call them the archetypes, the figures I want to embody and emulate. That I can pay tribute to them while providing a service for myself (i. e. letting you fine folks get to know me better) is the proverbial icing on the cake. Shall I introduce you, then, to my cadre of heroes?

First up is the most recent of the lot: Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Eddie, to me. I bet most of you have heard of him, from the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood if from nowhere else (in which Johnny Depp starred as Eddie, imbuing him with that characteristic Depp quirkiness that wasn’t entirely accurate; “Eddie was no kook,” as those who knew him have said). Ed is credited as “The Worst Director of All Time,” and the director of “The Worst Movie of All Time”—Plan 9 From Outer Space (which Eddie also wrote). It is because of this assignation that Eddie has become a posthumous celebrity, so I wouldn’t want to take it away from him; likewise, Plan 9 would have likely been forgotten by now if somebody hadn’t decided it was “the worst of all time!” so I wouldn’t want to change that. But, again, these “honors” are inaccurate.

I could name at least a dozen movies off the top of my head that are worse, way worse, than Plan 9.  Besides, as other fans have said, if you have a movie that is so much fun to watch, can you really, accurately call that a bad movie? Truly bad movies are insufferable, if not outright dull. Plan 9 is an absolute hoot from beginning to end. The worst director of all time? Eddie was not even the worst director of his day. There were plenty of guys cranking out contemporary low budget, boring-as-hell films. They were a dime a dozen. But there is one, only one, Plan 9. And it wasn’t alone. Eddie also gave us such classics as Bride of the Monster and Glen of Glenda?, just to name a couple.

Sure, I love schlocky old Horror and Sci-fi movies. Even bad ones. Maybe especially bad ones. But why do I love Eddie so much? For that reason alone? No. I love Eddie because I identify so much with him. I see so much of myself in him. Eddie was, like myself, a misfit. (His transvestism is common knowledge. I don't personally like to wear women's clothing; I am a misfit in other ways--although I AM in search of a pink faux Angora sweater, Ed's favorite,  to wear on special occasions in honor of him.) Also, Eddie had a coterie of weird and wonderful people he worked with again and again, almost his own theatrical troupe or repertory company: among the most colorful were the faux-psychic Criswell, the giant wrestler turned actor Tor Johnson, and late night B-movie hostess cum actress Vampira. I, like Eddie, am a writer-slash-director, preferring to script my own projects, and I, also like Eddie, have surrounded myself with a quirky clique or performers who are my personal friends as well as my co-conspirators. Furthermore, Eddie and I have the same tastes. His type of work is exactly my cup of tea.

There’s a better reason why I love the guy, though: his indomitable spirit. Eddie wanted to make movies, and he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way. Not a lack of money (boy can I identify with that), not a lack of name recognition on his part (“Who is this bozo, anyway?” more than a few studio heads would have asked). Not even his own lack, possibly his own lack, of abilities. He was determined to follow his dream and he did. And he gave the world some wonderful pictures. That they are wonderful in a way other than what he might have initially intended doesn’t in any way diminish the fact.

Eddie has been characterized as a poor man’s Orson Wells. I say, Orson is a poor man’s Ed Wood.  True, Citizen Kane may represent a masterpiece of the filmmaking craft. But it’s nowhere near as enjoyable to watch as Plan 9. And I’ll tell you something else. Some far-future socio-anthropologist, in looking back at the cinema of our present day to dissect it for meaning as to our culture, our mores and taboos, our circumstances of shared humanity, will find as much to note in Plan 9 as in C.K. Probably more. Kane is a character study. It is the story of one man. Plan 9 is about all of us. The ridiculous dialogue, chintzy special effects, total lack of production values, stilted acting and absurd plot do not in any way detract from or obscure the social commentary.

(In fact the basic subtext is the same as in the recognized classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. The original, not the remake starring Keanu Reeves—speaking of which, remember I said I could name at least twelve lousier movies than Plan 9? Make that thirteen. Actually, you can put most movies starring Keanu Reeves on that list. The guy makes Tor Johnson look downright Shakespearean.)

In summation, then: I contend that Eddie outdid Wells at capturing the zeitgeist and ortgeist of mid 20th Century human existence. Eat your heart out, Orson.

Eddie never hit it big. He ended up having to settle for directing soft-core pornos (although even these have the recognizable Ed Wood creative flair) that today would likely be Cinemax productions. His failure to achieve the level of success he deserved drove him deeper into depression, which in turn fed the alcoholism that would eventually kill him (when he was only in his fifties). This, and the fact that the fame he so desired would come to him only after he was gone, breaks my heart. But I love that he never gave up on his dream. Even at his lowest, there at the end, he was still talking about “that one big picture” that would establish his reputation as the creative genius he in truth was. Had he lived, I like to think he would have achieved it. He certainly would have kept trying. And that, most of all, is why I love him. The guy just didn’t know how to quit. I am not a moviemaker, of course (at least not yet), but as a struggling creator, a storyteller desperate to make a living doing the one thing I truly love to do, I need some of Ed’s determination. I need his example. Worst Director of All Time? I can only dream that someday they’ll say something half as cool about me.

My second archetype is also a director. Not a writer himself, still he embodied that wild creativity I so admire in others and those certain telltale traits I recognize in myself. William Castle was, like me, a born showman.

(Yes, I am a born showman. It took me a while to realize this about myself. I was always a storyteller, literally born to be a writer. The show-biz jones didn’t come along until later. But looking back on it, looking at myself as a kid, pretending to conduct a circus or managing my own cardboard box movie theater, I can see that the trait for showmanship was also always there, if not so overt.)

There was a lot of P.T. Barnum in Bill Castle, just like there is in me. I could claim Barnum as an inspiration, too, with one exception. Barnum tended to look at his patrons as marks to be milked of their money (you see what I did there, with the alliteration? Smooth, huh?) “There’s a sucker born every minute.” That’s Barnum’s most famous quote; you’ve all heard it. But I, like Bill Castle, see myself not as one out to shill my audience by trickery. No, I see my potential “customers,” my readers, those who attend one of my stage productions, as friends, and kindred spirits. I seek to create something for people like me, people who would enjoy the same things I enjoy. I make fun geek art for people who like fun geek art. And that’s what Bill Castle did.

Known as the “king of the gimmicks,” it was Castle’s marketing genius that conceptualized offering a life insurance policy to movie-goers, payable on death, because his movie was so scary that it just might scare you into a fatal coronary. Audiences responded by coming out in droves. For his movie Mr. Sardonicus, he set up the film so it stopped right before the finale, letting the audience vote on the fate that should befall the villain. Thumbs up or thumbs down, Castle offered the audience the choice. If they chose “thumbs down,” then Mr. Sardonicus got his, but good. Supposedly there were two different endings filmed, and depending on which way the audience voted, the projectionist would put in one of the two reels. In reality, Castle knew the audience would always vote thumbs down, and no alternate ending was ever filmed.

For The House on Haunted Hill, starring a young Vincent Price, Castle arranged for a ghostly skeleton to come out of the walls of the theaters  (theaters around the country were sent kits to set this up) and hover over the audience during the film’s critical scene. For Thirteen Ghosts, patrons were provided with special glasses. If they put the glasses on, they could see the ghosts onscreen. Without the glasses, the ghosts were invisible. That way, if the viewer got too scared, he or she could simply remove the glasses to make the specters disappear. And with The Tingler (my personal favorite), the movie actually stopped during one segment, allowing the movie’s little titular monster to break loose in the very theater where you were sitting! And to make sure the Tingler “got” a few of the viewers, Castle had theaters install joy buzzers in some of the seats. Really, can you imagine being there, in one of those audiences? How much fun would that have been?

If Ed Wood was seen as a second rate Orson Wells, then Bill Castle was regarded as an ersatz Alfred Hitchcock. Now don’t get me wrong, folks. I loved Psycho and The Birds. They are truly excellent movies. Hitchcock was a genius. But so was Bill Castle. And of the two, I prefer Castle.

Like Bill, I get jazzed on scaring an audience, or making them laugh, and the two are often one and the same. A giggle almost always follows a scream. But I’m not out to bilk anybody. I want audiences to enjoy what I am presenting. When we do something that shocks and thrills and makes somebody jump half out of their seat, I’m hoping they feel the same way I do when watching a scary movie. Or when I go to the County fair and seek out the sideshows. (Sadly, there are precious few of these left in our bland politically correct times.) The “pickled punks” (rubber babies in a jar, for those who don’t know their Carnie jargon), the six-legged pig, the headless woman, the giant man-eating rat—I don’t pay to see these because I’ve been tricked into believing what I’m seeing is real. I pay to see them because I love that stuff. I eat it up like ice cream.

Do I want to make money with my shows or my writing? Yes, of course I do. Ultimately I have to, if I am going to continue doing it. But I never, will never, let my desire to make a buck become more important than the quality of the product I’m offering the public, whether it’s a book, short story, play, a visit to one of my yearly “haunted house” attractions, or what have you. Like Bill Castle, I want to make my audience happy. Making an audience happy makes me happy.

Together with these two purveyors of creepy-cool entertainment, I do recognize one modern-day, still-with-us kindred spirit: Larry Blamire.
Like myself, Larry is first and foremost a theatre person. (That’s theatre with an R-E at the end, which means stage, remember? E-R at the end means a movie theater.) But he also has several movies under his belt: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra; The Lost Skeleton Returns Again; The Trail of the Screaming Forehead; Dark and Stormy Night; et al. I call Larry a kindred soul because we share the same sense of humor, the same love, obviously, for cheesy old B&W Sci-fi and Horror movies. But where Ed Wood created hilarity without really meaning to, Larry Blamire recognizes this stamp of movies as a comedic gold mine; the humor runs like a vein through them and Larry Blamire mines it mercilessly.

(Also he understands that the joke doesn’t work if the writer/director/actor acts like they are in on the joke. You can’t let people peek behind the curtain. You have to keep a straight face. The more ridiculous it is, when you play it straight, the funnier it is. That’s why I never find movies that are deliberately stupid, and wave that fact around like a flag, films like Meet the Spartans or Scary Movie, to be particularly humorous. That, and the fact that they’re usually so vulgar and juvenile.) 

With Lost Skeleton and its kith, you’d never know, if you didn’t know (does that make any sense?), that you weren’t watching a movie from the 1950s. Goofy (brilliantly goofy) dialogue, low-tech and low-dollar special effects (you can clearly see the strings animating the Lost Skeleton when it moves) and delightfully over-the-top acting. (Note: Any lousy actor can mange to be mediocre. But it takes a very good actor to be so deliberately bad.) The art form perfected, if not created, by the likes of Ed Wood is in very good hands with guys like Larry Blamire. Personally, I look up to the guy because, while his films are a collaborative effort put forth by a multitude of creative and talented people, he is the primary driving force behind them. His mind conceived them and without him they never would have come into being. He writes, directs, produces. He creates. And viva la creators, I say!

This, then, is my aspiration. To be able to list my name alongside those of Wood and Castle, in company with present-day creative genius madmen like Blamire. I’m working on it. I’ll get there. Sooner or later. I share Eddie’s dauntless inability to concede defeat, and I’ll use Bill’s cagey theatricality to achieve it. And Larry proves to me that yes, it can be done.

These, then, are my archetypes. In some later post I’ll talk about my literary as opposed to cinematic inspirations. And I’ll devote an entire post to my one, overriding case of hero worship, the guy who kind of transcends all the boundaries.

Next time, I’ll introduce you to THE CAPTAIN.