Saturday, May 4, 2019

Weiss and Wood :: When Fetishes Collide in Edward D. Wood Jr.'s, Glen or Glenda (1953)

Our latest tale of surreal lunacy begins in the deep-end of the Omigod What the Hell is Going On Here? Pool, where a grumpy old man waxes cryptically about the events which are destined to unfold from … well, someplace else. And while the credits refer to this man as The Scientist, we’ll be referring to him as The Puppet Master (Lugosi) due to his constant metaphysical string-pulling on our cast of characters. 

And as the audience struggles to follow his circular logic on this tale of the human condition, and humanity's constant search into the unknown, which has brought “startling new things to light,” but then immediately admits these new discoveries were actually old discoveries all along and just “the signs of the ages,” or whatever, we cut to a city street, and our omniscient Puppet Master starts channeling Sarte as he describes all these individuals living in their own individual worlds. Then, we hear the cries of a newborn, and then the wail of an ambulance siren. For, “One is a sign that a new life has begun, the other that a life has ended."

Cut to a small apartment, where police investigators process the crime scene of what turns out to be a suicide. And as an Inspector Warren (Talbot) reads the suicide note, turns out the victim was not a woman at all but a cross-dresser named Patrick, who preferred life as Patricia. Seems Patricia had been arrested four times for cross-dressing in public and served several jail sentences for this so-called crime. And due to this lack of understanding and persecution, Patricia decided there was no hope for her future and killed herself, ending the note with a request to be buried as Patricia, declaring, "Let my body rest in death forever, in the things I cannot wear in life."

Puzzled by all of this, and worried about a sudden spike in cross-dresser suicides, Warren checks in with a psychiatrist, Dr. Alton, for some answers. Alton (Farrell) then takes over narrator duties as he relates the tale of Glen (Wood -- though credited as Daniel Davis), whom we meet as the man dressed as a woman lingers at a shop window filled with the latest female fashions. We then flashback to Glen’s youth, where he asks to wear his sister Sheila’s dress to a Halloween party, which his mother allows over his father’s protests. But then Glen, liking how they made him feel, continued to wear his sister’s clothing on the sly until he got caught in drag by Sheila (Wood), who has shunned him ever since.

Here, Alton explains to the dubious Warren that, no, Glen was not a homosexual but a transvestite, which he explains is a male who prefers to dress in women’s clothing. Getting back to the narrative shows Glen has been hiding this secret life from his fiancee, Barbara (Fuller), fearing she will reject him outright if she ever found out about Glenda, Glen’s other self, and how he fetishizes and covets some of her clothes -- especially her Angora sweaters. Knowing full well something has been eating at him lately that he refuses to talk about, Barbara fears their suddenly strained relationship might be due to some infidelity on Glen’s part and another woman has come between them.

Of course Barbara is right but just not in the way she thinks since the “other woman” is Glenda. Here, the Puppet Master chimes back in, encouraging everybody to “Pull the string!” as a herd of superimposed buffalo stampede through the scene. (Magic 8-Ball? What was that all about?! Magic 8-Ball says, “@#%* if I know! You’re on your own, dude.” ) Anyhoo, after the Puppet Master and the bison exit, stage left, Alton continues, saying how much Glen is torn over whether to reveal his secret life to Barbara before or after their wedding. Seems the wife of his friend, John (Crafts), a fellow transvestite, left him after catching him wearing some of her clothes, which only adds even more anxiety.

Thus and so, to shed some of that anxiety, Glen goes out for a decompressing stroll as Glenda. But when she returns home, a clap of thunder causes her to collapse to the floor unconscious. Cut back to the Puppet Master, currently off his meds (-- and considering Lugosi was a narcotic addict at the time, I now realize how tasteless that joke is, sorry, everybody), as he unleashes a salvo of non-sequiturs, telling everyone to "Beware! Beware! Beware of the big, green dragon that sits on your doorstep! He eats little boys, puppy dog tails, and big, fat snails! Take care! Beware!” And what we’re to be wary of is Glen’s subconscious as this rant leads to a phantasmagorical dream sequence, where Barbara discovers his secret. This, does not go well.

Then, Barbara is trapped under a fallen tree; a tree which Glenda fails to move but Glen removes with ease. Once she’s free, we shift to their wedding day, where Glen’s best man appears to be the Devil himself (DeZita). And while the Puppet Master keeps ranting on and on about the eating habits of the dragon green, I think what Glen is really trying to show us here is how he’s damned if he does and damned if he don’t as far as Barbara is concerned when it comes to the truth about Glenda...

Far from the volatile man-mountain as portrayed in Tim Burton's bio-pic, Ed Wood (1994), by most accounts, film producer George Weiss was an unassuming and affable guy, small and stooped in stature, who had a thing for kinky titillation and domineering women. (You can actually spot him in this movie, a brief cameo, as the building super who let the police into the apartment of the decedent.)

George Weiss. 
A student of the Kroger Babb school of road-showing and square-up reels, where you could get away with just about anything as long as you presented things as being educational, Weiss and his Screen Classic Productions had already made themselves quite the reputation with a tell-all look at artificial insemination in Test Tube Babies (1948), the horrors of narcotics with The Devil's Sleep (1949), a harsh lesson of female wrestlers duped into a money-laundering scheme in Racket Girls (1951), and dirty flesh-peddlers doing dirty things in Dance Hall Racket (1953), which included an appearance by the legendary Lenny Bruce, where Weiss broke in another fledgling director by the name of Phil Tucker, who would go on to carve out his own gorilla-shaped hunk of sci-fi infamy with the awesome whackadoodlery of Robot Monster (1953).

Weiss had also churned out a couple of stag loops and feature length Nudies with the burlesque show-fueled Too Hot to Handle (1950) and Paris After Midnight (1951), where a couple of American GIs on leave in Paris wind up in a jail and spend the night recounting all the debauchery encountered in the Place Pigalle ("Pig Alley") that landed them in the clink.

And as originally intended, Weiss had wanted his next feature, I Changed My Sex, to be in the same clinical vein. But when noted transexual, Christine Jorgensen, formerly George Jorgensen Jr., whose recent, headline-grabbing sex-change operation the proposed feature was not-so-loosely based on, both refused all overtures to appear as the lead and wouldn’t sign off on any kind of publicity tour because she didn’t want to sensationalize the procedure while her parents were still alive, Weiss was forced to re-calibrate and rethink things.

Enter Edward D. Wood Jr., a writer, a wannabe film director, and a transvestite himself. As far as I know, the exact circumstances that led to Wood crossing paths with Weiss has yet to surface. But cross paths they did, leading to one of the strangest exploitation classics of all time. And with a content-reluctant Bela Lugosi tucked in Wood's back-pocket, who became far less reluctant when his then wife, Lillian, negotiated a doubling of his salary from $500 to a $1000, the tone of the project changed from a shocking exposé to full-blown melodrama about Wood’s own proclivities, which went through several title changes, ranging from I Led Two Lives, to He or She, to The Transvestite as it ran through the States Rights circus, before finally settling on its best known title, Glen or Glenda (1953).

As filming commenced for a grand total of four whole days, Weiss was soon faced with three monumental problems. First, thanks to Wood's deficit-style budgeting, the producer was forced to pre-sell the film in order to generate enough money to complete the picture. Now, what always turned out to be Wood's Achilles Heel was financing (-- and his drinking didn’t help, either); and what separated the successful independent film entrepreneur from the other one-lungers, was a business model where a majority of the profits from the distribution deal on a completed film was then used to help finance their next feature. With Wood, he was usually so far in the hole from over-selling shares and grossly underestimating costs, that whatever money was made went to paying off the last feature, leaving him nothing for the next. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. And then skip out when the bills come due.

The second obstacle Weiss faced was Wood's finished film came in well short of the required 70 minutes. To fix this, the producer stuck in about fifteen minutes worth of additional, nonsensical footage into the dream sequence, salvaged from an unfinished film of one of Weiss's other associates, W. Merle Connell -- Untamed Women (1952), The Flesh Merchant (1956). And when you watch the end results, it isn't all that difficult to see where Wood's weirdness ends and Weiss's naughtiness begins:

Looking like snippets from one of Weiss’s vintage stag reels, or one of those old Irving Klaw bondage loops, these inserts, inter-cut with reaction shots from Wood’s character and Lugosi’s, only add to the overall delirium of Glen or Glenda that supercharges the schlock into something truly unique. 

And as the dream sequence finally ends after Glen and Glenda go through the torments of hell, represented by the preening devil and mocking visages, who slander his perceived deviant behavior relentlessly, and ends with the wholesale rejection from Barbara. When Glenda wakes up, she faces herself in the mirror and removes the wig.

With that, Glen decides to tell Barbara the truth. And while she initially struggles with this revelation, Barbara decides to stand by him, removing her sweater and offering it to him as a symbolic gesture of acceptance and a promise that, together, they will work things out.

When the scene shifts back to Dr. Alton’s office, with the story essentially over, we come to Weiss’s third monumental problem with the film. Seems he had promised his distributors an exploitation film about a sex-change operation, which Wood had neglected to include. Thus and so, we get a tacked on ending, where Alton also relates the tale of Alan (Haynes), whose mother had wanted a girl so badly she decided to raise him as Anne, leading to a life of ridicule and rejection.

When Alan was drafted into World War II, he maintained his secret life as Anne, echoing both Jorgensen and Wood’s own experiences in the service; Wood as a paratrooper, who claimed he once made a combat jump wearing a brassiere and panties under his GI togs. As for Alan, wounded during combat, he first hears about the possibility of a sex-change operation while recuperating at the hospital. And once recovered and mustered out, Alan decides to go through with the trials and tribulations of the operation and finally embraces who he was supposed to be all along.

In the end, despite all those title changes and added bonus content, Glen or Glenda just never could find an audience. Too bizarre for mainstream theaters but not bizarre enough for the roadshows, Weiss couldn't get anybody to show the damnable thing and took a bath. But unlike most of his other backers, Weiss held no real animosity toward Wood over their film's box-office failure, and has nothing but nice things to say about the director in Rudolph Grey's anecdotal biography, A Nightmare of Ecstasy, but it should be noted the two never worked together again -- except when Wood bought out Weiss' unfinished film, Hellborn, and eventually turned it into The Sinister Urge (1960).

By the time Glen or Glenda was completed, with the draconian Hayes Code starting to show a few cracks in its cinematic foundation, Weiss soon chucked the educational angle and square-up reels and shifted his focus to straight-on Burlesque revues and helped pioneer the Nudies in the late 1950s. However, Weiss is probably more famous, and rightfully so, for establishing The Roughie with the lovely Audrey Campbell as Mistress Olga in White Slaves of Chinatown (1964), and the equally demented Olga's House of Shame (1964), and Olga's Girls (1964).

And, with Weiss's encouragement, this also ushered in the commando sleaze-noir of Michael and Roberta Findlay -- Take Me Naked (1966), The Touch of Her Flesh (1967), The Ultimate Degenerate (1969) and the Amero brothers -- Diary of a Swinger (1967), Lusting Hours (1967), and The Corporate Queen (1969), which helped turn those cracks in the Nation's moral codes into a full-blown breach. Add it all up, and fans of weird and offbeat and exploitative cinema everywhere owe Georgie Weiss a huge debt of gratitude, and he needs to be known more for that than just another guy Ed Wood bamboozled and left in his drunken wake.

Glen or Glenda (1953) Screen Classics / P: George Weiss / D: Edward D. Wood Jr. / W: Edward D. Wood Jr. / C: William C. Thompson / E: 'Bud' Schelling / M: Sanford H. Dickinson / S: Edward D. Wood Jr., Dolores Fuller, Bela Lugosi, Lyle Talbot, Timothy Farrell,Captain DeZita, Evelyn Wood, Tommy Haynes

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Ghosts in the Tall Grass :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Kaneto Shindô's Onibaba (1964)

As the Battle of Minatogawa rages nearby, which triggered a long and bloody period of civil war and strife in 14th century feudal Japan that would last for over fifty years, two soldiers flee from the wholesale carnage but are pursued by several others on horseback. Now, whether these men are fleeing from the enemy or are deserters no one can say for sure as they try to lose themselves in a dense patch of grass. And as they struggle through the deepening marsh and overwhelmingly dense vegetation, as the wind whips the elongated chutes into a blinding frenzy, both men are suddenly run through by spears held by unseen hands, gored, and killed rather gruesomely.

It is then revealed those spears were held by two women, who quickly strip the victims bare of their weapons, armaments, and clothing before unceremoniously dragging and dumping the bodies into a large and ominous pit secluded deep in the marsh. All of this is done with such a ruthless efficiency, it becomes quite obvious these two have pulled off this kind of ambush before. And not only have they done this before, but they’ve turned it into a cottage industry as these desperate and destitute women leave their ramshackle hut and take this latest batch of loot to a black market peddlar named Ushi (Tonoyama) and trades them for more rations of rice.

Seems times are tough in this province, what with the feuding factions having stripped the land bare of anything edible and shanghaiing all able-bodied men into service (-- and women, too, for other reasons), leaving no one to regrow the next batch of crops, leaving those left behind to eke out an existence by any means necessary or face death by starvation. And since it’s rare to have a dog wonder into camp and onto the menu, the old woman (Otowa) and the girl, her daughter-in-law (Yoshimura), decided to get proactive. In fairness, they haven’t chosen a side in this conflict and are equal opportunity killers and looters. And once the latest negotiations are complete, the lecherous Ushi offers up an extra ration if either woman will have sex with him. The older woman refuses. Bluntly.

When they return to the hut, the women are startled to find someone there, hiding out, waiting for them. Hachi (Satō) is another deserter, but he was also a neighbor and friend of Kichi, son and husband to these two scavengers, who got conscripted into the conflict at the same time, explaining why he wasn’t immediately set upon or wound up in the pit -- at least not yet, as Hachi brings bad news, revealing Kichi also tried to desert with him from the ongoing battle but was killed while trying to steal supplies from a group of farmers on the way home. Convinced the cowardly Hachi let her son die, the woman tosses him out and forbids the girl from ever interacting with him.

But things tend to get mighty lonely in the tall grass and, soon enough, Hachi is able to not-so-clandestinely seduce the girl and they go at it, hot and heavy, night after night. Soon realizing she is about to lose the girl to this interloper, and knowing full well she will never survive on her own without her partner, the woman, perhaps a little jealous, and definitely equally sexually frustrated, confronts Hachi, pleads with him to leave the girl alone, and offers herself up instead to satisfy his carnal needs only to be laughed off as an old hag he wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. Thus, despite the fact Hachi was awful handy in killing two dueling samurai caught in the flooded paddy, whose superior weapons brought them more rice, the old woman concludes he needs to go in the hole with all the others.

But before she can set this in motion, while the other two are once more off fornicating, making her distracted and off her game, yet another samurai -- a general (Uno), clad in a hideous demon mask, stumbles upon the hut unmolested. Seems the general, who refuses to remove the mask, saying it protects his beautiful face, has gotten lost after the latest battle and wants the woman to guide him out of this infernal marsh. And after a brief philosophical debate on Japan’s patriarchal caste system, the woman agrees to these demands only to the lead the man into a trap, when he is herded toward the unseen pit and falls to his death.

Then, when the woman lowers herself into the hole, she finally manages to wrest the stubborn mask off, which reveals the man was hideously scarred underneath. And as she strips the rest of him and makes fun of his looks, the woman suddenly hits upon a blasphemous notion that will solve all of her problems and explains why the samurai’s robes and demon mask were noticeably absent when she sells the rest off to Ushi. And while this does solve one problem for the old woman, it curses her with yet another, more deadly one...

An erotically charged, strange, but deceptively simple little bugaboo of a movie, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) was based on an old Shin Buddhist parable, Yome-odoshi-no men (-- translated as bride-scaring mask), whose moral lesson of piety and divine consequences the director kinda acknowledged but then turned on its ear. In the story, a mother feels her daughter-in-law spends too much time going to temple and praying to Buddha, feeling her day would be better spent on her chores and tending to her husband’s needs. And so, to rectify this, the mother waits in ambush on the path to the temple, hiding in a patch of tall grass. And when the daughter-in-law approaches, she jumps out in front of her, wearing a hideous demon mask, shrieking and gesticulating, scaring the girl into an immediate u-turn.

But this stunt backfires when the wrathful Buddha puts a curse on her for this deception, which left the mask permanently welded to her face once it gets wet in a rainstorm. And only after she prays for mercy did the mask finally come off, but it took half of her face with it as a reminder that while Buddha can be merciful and forgiving, there will still be consequences to deal with for your blasphemy.

Shindo would later recount how his mother told him this story in his youth to reinforce the notion to always be honest and forthcoming and the dangers of hypocrisy and deception, and it apparently stuck. And while the central theme is still there and drives the third act, both Shindo and Onibaba had a lot more to say. Not since Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1993) have I seen a film hold this much contempt for those who wage war, which is then reflected in how the film wallows in the desperation, degradation, and poverty of those caught up in this no man’s land as they try to survive not day to day nor hour to hour but minute to minute.

From the opening scene of Onibaba -- which literally translates as “demon hag,” the cynical Shindo makes it perfectly clear he has no patience for the current corrupt social order of his native country, which led Japan to war two decades earlier, and strips bare the samurai’s bushido code by having his protagonists literally desecrate and strip every samurai carcass they come across. (This is all reinforced later in the scenes with the general both mortem and postmortem.) It is the stuff of nonsense, says Shindo, that only leads to loss and ruin for those caught in the wash, who suffer the real consequences of this kind of blind faith, leaving you with few choices: a terrible death by violence, or a horrible death by starvation.

But it’s not just food they’re all hungry for. There’s a very strong libidinous component to Onibaba as well. This is a lusty, sweaty, and primal movie. And if one looked at the evolutionary chart of such things, the film feels like a common genre ancestor for both the Pinky Violence and Roman Porno films that were about to come into vogue in the late 1960s. 

Unlike everyone else in this movie, the old woman is sexually frustrated. She’s extremely jealous when Hachi rejects her. And there’s even a few less than subtle hints of sapphic desire for her daughter-in-law, making things even more twisted as she waits in ambush as the girl once more sneaks out of the hut for another moonlight rendezvous with Hachi.

With Operation: Scare the Piss Out of Little Miss Horny Pants a complete success, the following morning, the old woman presses things even further, convincing the naive girl the demon was most assuredly real and divine punishment for her infidelity. And it will be back if she tries it again, she warns. These scare tactics work for a little while, but lust is a harsh mistress never satisfied. And so, as a thunderstorm rages, the old woman dresses up again and sets another ambush, which totally backfires this time. Seems Hachi was tired of waiting for the girl, sets out to find her, only to have the "demon" chase her right into his arms. And as he quiets her down and they go at it, the old woman, realizing she has failed and lost the girl for good this time, watches on dejectedly.

Once the deed is done, Hachi returns to his hut, where he catches another deserter stealing his food and is promptly killed by his startled guest. Meantime, the old woman has discovered she can no longer remove the soggy demon mask. When the younger girl returns, and is rightfully frightened by the sight of the demon in their hut, the old woman reveals it was her all along, begs forgiveness, and promises to no longer interfere in her love-life with Hachi if she will help get the infernal mask off. A mighty struggle ensues and, in the end, the girl winds up having to break the mask off with a hammer. Once gleefully removed, it’s revealed the mask took most of the woman’s skin with it.

Taking one look at this hideous visage convinces the girl this really was a demon all along; she screams, and then flees into the night. The old woman chases after her, swearing she is not a demon. This erratic chase leads them to the pit, which the girl jumps over. Right behind her, the older woman also makes the leap as the film abruptly ends, leaving it up to the audience on whether she made it across or not. Me? I’m leaning toward not, but it all kinda depends on your own metered severity of the ‘hell of your own making’ in what you just watched.

To fulfill his vision, Shindo wanted to make the entire film in a dense field of susuki grass; an invasive perennial that ranges from three to seven feet tall. And after a lot of searching, he finally found what he was looking for along a riverbank in Chiba near Inba-Numa, where they put up prefabricated buildings to house the minimal cast and crew for the scheduled three month shoot. The crew got a little mutinous as things dragged on due to the incessant rains and flooding that plagued the shoot, which bred hordes of insects and stirred up the local crayfish population; but stuck it out when told they wouldn’t get paid at all unless the contractual obligation was met.

Despite these hardships, Shindo, his cast, and his cinematographer, Kiyomi Kuroda, really captured some magic here. A film with more visual texture than Onibaba I’m hard pressed to name. Poetic even, when you add in the haunting vocals of Hayahi Hikaru’s intense, percussion heavy score. And I think the film works better if you take it at face value with the visuals, which -- from the opening sequence to the finale, where the old woman's scarred face brings to mind the radiation burns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are stunning, since the plot is kinda leaking water; and the less you try to ponder on the schism of an old folktale on right and wrong and a twisted carnal yarn of gaslighting and survival the better in the long run.

Onibaba (1964) Kindai Eiga Kyokai :: Tokyo Eiga Co Ltd. :: Toho :: P: Hisao Itoya, Kazuo Kuwahara, Tamotsu Minato, Setsuo Noto / D: Kaneto Shindô / W: Kaneto Shindô / C: Kiyomi Kuroda / E: Toshio Enoki / M: Hikaru Hayashi / S: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô, Jûkichi Uno, Taiji Tonoyama
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