The Movie Orgy (Joe Dante, 1968)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Movie Orgy.

A send-up and a celebration of mid-century American kitsch, Joe Dante’s epic pop culture mash-up, The Movie Orgy, entertained college campuses through the late 1960s and 1970s, drawing upon an ever-changing library of ’50s drive-in movies, vintage commercials, TV westerns, and political speeches. Re-discovered and re-cut by Dante for a revival screening in 2008 into its 280 minute “Ultimate Version,” this legendary cinematic event is now available outside of theatres for the first time. SEE a colossal collage of nostalgia! SEE an experience of mind-rotting celluloid hysteria! SEE thousands of performers in roles that earned them obscurity!  SEE bosomy starlets, juvenile delinquency, Christian puppetry, Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, and Richard Nixon!

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • High-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Joe Dante, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Dante
  • Rated Z, archivist David Neary on the history and significance of The Movie Orgy
  • Posters and promotional materials
  • PLUS: An essay by director John Sayles

Few films (or “film experiences”) have evolved over time as much as Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (1968), a comically massive and massively comic super-cut of Cold War Americana culled from B-features, movie serials, and television. Starting as a lark assembled and performed by Dante, then a student at the Philadelphia College of Art and a contributing editor to the magazine Castle of Frankenstein, and Jon Davison, a 16mm film collector still in high school (and a long way from becoming the producer of Airplane! and Robocop), The Movie Orgy played on college campuses as special engagements for less than a decade and then vanished. In the years after, the five to seven hour screening became a cinematic legend that only a select few could rightfully claim to have witnessed. Yet, like all great movie monsters, The Movie Orgy rose from its tomb. In the late-2000s, Dante toured a nearly 5-hour long, digitally preserved “Ultimate Version” at repertory houses and film festivals to rapturous audiences ready to embrace the “lost opus” of a favourite filmmaker. Reconsidering The Movie Orgy, it’s easy to read its history as a reflection on the cinematic life Joe Dante himself, from young artist to elder statesman. Thankfully, the stories of Dante and his epic found footage experimental are long and fascinating ones.

Joe Dante: Camp Counselor

The Movie Orgy began with An Evening with Batman and Robin, a four-and-a-half-hour cut of the 1943 Columbia Pictures serial released in 1966. Impressed by the sense of camaraderie the lengthy show inspired (not to mention the serial’s goofy false climaxes and the shock of its overt xenophobia), Dante rented Ford Beebe’s 1939 serial The Phantom Creeps; extended the run time from five to seven hours with cartoons, commercials, industrial films, and other content; and screened it to great success. With no other serials available in Philadelphia, Dante and Davison developed the initial version of The Movie Orgy out of various B-movie features like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (Gene Fowler Jr., 1957), Queen of Outer Space (Edward Bernds, 1958), and Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960). Davison screened these movies on one projector and Dante cut into them on a separate projector loaded with “fragmented chaos” as relief from the boring bits. More successful screenings followed, first at NYU, then Columbia University, then the Fillmore East, with Dante and Davison gauging audience reactions with each performance and tweaking The Movie Orgy for maximum laughs, giving birth to The Movie Orgy 2The Movie Orgy Strikes BackSon of the Movie OrgyEscape to Movie Orgy, and Son of Movie Orgy Rides Again,

The Movie Orgy is a work steeped in nostalgia but received through the lens of camp. Dante and Davison recognized a yearning held by the college-age baby-boomers for the previous generation’s media and Susan Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” was an important touchstone, explaining the appeal for the earnest artifice and failed seriousness of these productions. Speed Crazy (William J. Hole Jr., 1959), arguably The Movie Orgy‘s most catching work, is a juvenile delinquent film distilled down to a collection of scenes involving its central ne’er-do-well Nick Barrow (Brett Halsey) absurdly repeating his complaint (as if speaking to Dante directly), “Don’t crowd me, Joe.” The Coronet Instructional Media film High School Prom (1958) provides some excessively square advice for prom night while a recurring ad for Carter’s Little Liver Pills offers patent medicine relief from the roiling boil of a stopped-up glass digestive system. The Movie Orgy is at its most unnerving with a performance of “Jesus Loves Me” on the Andy’s Gang children’s program, where a raspy voiced mountain of a man, Andy Devine, sings the hymn backed by Froggy the Gremlin (“Pluck your magic twanger, Froggie!“), a dozy Midnight the Cat on keyboards, and Squeaky the Mouse stiffly keeping time on a pocket-sized bass drum. The Movie Orgy is something of a Rosetta Stone of camp – blending good intentions with wrongheadedness, sincerity with amateurism (and even primitivism) – and it succeeds by revelling in these blunders without overtly mocking them. Dante was ahead of his time with The Movie Orgy but the culture would eventually catch up with him. When it did and camp went mainstream, The Movie Orgy found itself exhausted.

Joe Dante: Hollywood Auteur

The Movie Orgy toured for little more than a year before Schlitz Beer arrived with a sponsorship deal. “The beer that made Milwaukee famous” was a best-selling brand aimed at adolescent drinkers. It offered Dante a travel allowance, a performance fee, and a percentage of the show’s gate (with Schlitz keeping the remainder of the ticket proceeds plus the beer sales) and it gave the filmmaker a means to share the project and make a living wage. Schlitz promoted the hell out of The Movie Orgy for a number of years but the appeal of the project was waning by 1975. Vietnam was over, Watergate has passed, and camp nostalgia was readily available on the living room television set. Schlitz wanted The Movie Orgy modernized but intentionally camp material was antithetical to the project. As Dante observed, “When the Richard Nixon footage wasn’t getting laughs any more, we knew it was time to pack it in.” The Movie Orgy was accordingly shuttered around 1977 (although a video-tape program sold by Video Tape Network aired a version on campus closed-circuit TV networks for years after).

Davison left The Movie Orgy years before its retirement, taking a job with Roger Corman at New World Pictures thanks to a recommendation from Martin Scorsese, leaving Dante to soldier on alone. Dante joined New World in 1974, editing trailers before directing his first feature in 1975 with Allan Arkush. With a burgeoning directorial career and the diminishing impact of The Movie Orgy, Dante chose to focus on a second feature film, resulting in the Jawsploitation success Piranha (1978). His directing career thereafter became a formative catalogue to a generation of young film fans – The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), Innerspace (1987), The ‘Burbs (1989) – and so The Movie Orgy has been sustained not just by its scarcity, but by the dialogue is creates between these later, more available works. The Movie Orgy lets Dante fans play cinema archeologists, digging through the project’s more than 200 sources to find the seeds of the filmmaker’s B-movie homages, his lighthearted science fictions, and his brazen political satires.

Movie Orgy historian David Neary observes that Dante’s “Ultimate Version” is made up of eight central feature films that account for more than a fifth of its screen time – Speed CrazyAttack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan H. Juran, 1958), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Fred F. Sears, 1956), The Giant Gila Monster (Ray Kellogg, 1959), The Giant Claw (Sears, 1957), Tarantula! (Jack Arnold, 1955), College Confidential (Albert Zugsmith, 1960), and The Beginning of the End (Bert I. Gordon, 1957). Six of them involve sci-fi monsters, most of whom attack an American town with “a barely monstrous creature,” and the other two represent teen-fad pictures, however all of them are organized around society facing off against a “monster” threatening the good ol’ American status quo. The Movie Orgy takes great glee in skewering the jingoistic views embedded in these cultural products, whether its the astonishingly blunt racism of Wives Under Suspicion (James Whale, 1938), a breathy Ann-Margret discussing her tour of Vietnam and stumping for savings bonds, or collectible “Defenders of America” trading cards emblazoned with your favourite missile or aircraft and stuffed into boxes of Shredded Wheat. As Ben Sachs notes, The Movie Orgy finds a type of poignancy when a recruitment commercial’s “pro-military fantasy” finds an equivalency to the fantasy of defeating giant locusts in The Beginning of the End. Dante’s subsequent films have regularly loaded social and political commentary into its genre-based plots, including the Cold War-conscious Matinee (1993), the anti-militarist Small Soldiers (1998), and the satirically isolationist The Second Civil War (1997), and so part of The Movie Orgy‘s fun is in rediscovering these themes explored by Dante at his most raw and most unfettered.

Joe Dante: Avant-Garde Artist

Dante’s clever juxtaposition of recruitment film footage and giant locust attacks is just one of the many associative edits that root The Movie Orgy. Often the intent is explicitly political, cutting Fu Manchu against Richard Nixon or having the students of College Confidential react in disgust to the accidental airing of Nixon’s “Checkers speech.” In other cases, these edits are simply cheeky, as when Mighty Mouse introduces “another great cartoon” only to cut to an educational film about tampon use. Dante certainly didn’t invent the appropriation of found footage. Filmmakers like Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner, and Arthur Lipsett were already well established by the genesis of The Movie Orgy but the comparison is notable as it places Dante in irregular company. Dante, for all the goodwill deservedly heaped upon him, is rarely discussed for his experimental sensibilities or his collage artist complexity and Dante’s self-deprecating nature undercuts his own technique, calling The Movie Orgy “a series of stuff” and comparing it to the phenomenon of channel surfing. The Movie Orgy is, in fact, a masterwork of montage and an expression of Dante’s talent for cinema’s most fundamental quality. John Sayles observes the alacrity by which Dante uses his material when remarking that “[w]ithout the need for narration, [The Movie Orgy] doesn’t only contextualize ’50s movies, but explains the psychic and political life of the era.”

Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy also exhibits a preoccupation with film as a physical form and a performed (i.e. projected) experience. The original work was a Frankenstein’s monster of various film gauges that proved to be a constant struggle to keep from degrading completely, and the video copy of the “Ultimate Version” preserves all that wear and tear, all those imperfections that refer back to Dante’s original screenings with Davison. The Movie Orgy is a tribute to film’s plastics, full of splices, scratches, colour-fading, emulsion damage, and holes punched through frames to mark reels for junking. Screen images look muddied at times or squeezed when anamorphic footage is presented without a correcting lens. Audio also bears the marks of age and handling through distortion, pops, or by dropping out altogether. This awareness of film as a material object, this hypermediacy, is intrinsic to The Movie Orgy and it works against the contemporary grain of the digital era. While many hail restorations as bringing films back to their appearances on initial release (or even better), The Movie Orgy is a reminder that most cinema-goers saw circulating prints that were far from pristine and that this compromised movie-watching experience was the rule rather than the exception.

Joe Dante: Historian

While Dante remains an active director, he has also become one of popular cinema’s elder statesman. He’s been the subject of various film festival retrospectives and a recurring recipient of lifetime achievement awards. The Trailers From Hell website, to which he is a co-creator and contributor, pays tribute to the art of the trailer and offers insights into cinema’s great (and not so great) works, and Dante serves as the keeper of all film knowledge on his wonderful The Movies That Made Me podcast with co-host Josh Olson. Dante was awarded the Locarno Film Festival’s Leopard of Honour in 1998 and the Festival requested a screening of The Movie Orgy from its honouree. Some 20 years after being retired, Dante created a D-1 digital scan of his marathon film experience, only to have the version later become unextractable. A new digital scan was made in 2007 for a special screening at the newly relaunched New Beverly Cinema, now under the ownership of Quentin Tarantino. Dante took the opportunity to tinker with the work, however he wondered who would be the audience of this new “Digital Orgy.” The filmmaker had underestimated his own regard when this “Ultimate Version” was released and he had failed to recognize the current culture’s embrace of what Peter Deburge described as “ironic postmodern commentary.” The New Beverly screenings were resounding successes, playing to packed houses and drawing celebrity fans. Since then, Dante and The Movie Orgy have made regular appearances at film festivals and special programs with each serving to enhance the appreciating legacy of the other.

Dante and The Movie Orgy have both become historic film figures in their own rights. The film is constituted by history, a lot of history, culled together from myriad sources gleaned from film, television, and places farther afield. Part of what makes The Movie Orgy so important is that a notable portion of it are what Dan Streible calls “orphan films” – works whose owners or rightholders cannot be identified or located, or who have abandoned the care of those works. Dante estimates that 5% of The Movie Orgy could contain the only remaining copies of some content. These orphans are fascinating. An outtake to a Johnson’s Baby Powder commercial presents a bathroom scene where two women descend into a topless softcore fling following a flubbed line. A police educational video promoting the use of mace as weapon against court-imposed legal restrictions sees a man voluntarily take a full blast to the face. A series of commercials to an unused Bufferin ad campaign (“Strong Medicine for Sensitive People”) show unlikely spokespeople for the pain-reliever – a father disappointed by his son’s refusal to shoot a rifle, a draft officer sending a young man to war, a real estate agent evicting an elderly couple so their apartment building can be demolished. There’s even a student film Dante sourced from the Philadelphia College of Art whose author is entirely unknown. The student film sees a Playboy-reading priest secure a wriggling Jesus to his cross with a staple gun. The Movie Orgy is necessarily a historical document of pop culture with its clips of Abbott and Costello, its Colgate Toothpaste commercials promoting GARDOL, Elvis singing to a literal “Hound Dog,” and scenes from You Bet Your Life, however Dante’s effort crosses into what David Neary calls “meta preservation,” where an amateur project and an accident of timing create an unplanned archive of lost media. What is more, the fragile and forgotten nature of this content is made material by the tattered and decrepit quality of Dante’s assembly. You’ll find none of Bill Morrison’s sensual decay in Joe Dante’s memory project; much of The Movie Orgy‘s media are ultimately commercial products that quickly converted into detritus once exhausted and every blemish and shudder memorialized by Dante describes the impermanent status held by most media.

Two major pitfalls stand between The Movie Orgy and a hard media release. The first is the reality that Dante has never cleared the rights to use any of the material contained in this massive super-cut. Historian David Neary is nevertheless bullish on the film’s potential to overcome any objection that might arise. He notes that Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) was thoroughly reviewed by an entertainment lawyer before it was released on Blu-ray and was given a “rock-solid” assessment of its claim to fair use. Neary believes that The Movie Orgy should similarly satisfy the transformative, productive, and orthogonal qualities necessary to withstand any legal challenge. It’s also worth noting that no complaint regarding The Movie Orgy has ever been advanced since it first began screening in 1968.

The second issue rests with Dante, who has previously stated that no hard media release is coming. “It’s more like a concert in a way,” says the filmmaker, “It’s something that you really have to be there for.” With all respect to Dante, The Movie Orgy itself has changed over time, altering its content, shifting its viewing context, and transitioning to a digital facsimile of the original live performance enacted by a tag team projectionists. The Movie Orgy is about popular culture and enough time has passed that it should be popularly seen, available legitimately to those who don’t live near the few major centres or film festival locales lucky enough to host a single screening, (although it is available online if you look hard enough!). And there is also the reality that The Movie Orgy is a more complex and thought-provoking work than Dante lets on, meaning that scholars and cineastes should have the opportunity to see the work more than once, get past the “spot the reference” game that a first viewing entails and more fully absorb the audacity and nuance at work. With that, MMC! implores the venerable Mr. Dante and the Criterion Collection to bring this ragged carnival to everyone with all of its splices, scratches, and sound-pops intact (and perhaps with either that mushroom cloud poster or Charlie Hill’s wonderful illustration as a cover treatment!)

Credits: With such a long film taking up space on an imagined Blu-ray, this proposed version has kept the special features to its essentials – an interview with Joe Dante (like this one, this one, or this one!), an extra with the project’s historian David Neary, and an essay by Dante’s friend and colleague, director John Sayles. Neary was chosen for his invaluable Masters thesis “‘It’s just one abomination after another’: A Preservation History of Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy,” essential reading for anyone interested in Dante’s marathon cinema experience. John Sayles’ essay would hopefully expand on his brief discussion of The Movie Orgy in “A Soldier in the Field,” his contribution to Nil Baskar and Gabe Klinger’s wonderful and aptly titled book, Joe Dante.

In addition to Neary’s essay and Baskar and Klinger’s book, this post owes thanks to Dave Kehr’s article for The New York Times, Charles Bramesco’s minute-by-minute report for Vulture, Joshua Klein’s interview with Joe Dante for The A.V. Club, Simon Abrams’ interview for RogerEbert.com, Sean Welsh’s article for Matchbox Cineclub, Nathaniel Hood’s reflections on a screening at The Brooklyn Academy of Music for The Retro Set, and Andrew Wyatt’s article for St. Louis Magazine.

2 thoughts on “The Movie Orgy (Joe Dante, 1968)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s