A report from the front lines of Woodology
By Will Sloan, Woodologist
In his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Andrew Sarris defined the films of an auteur as having three characteristics: technique, personal style, and interior meaning. Like the French critics who helped popularize the idea of the film director as artist, Sarris put special emphasis on Hollywood studio filmmakers like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh: craftsmen who improbably imposed a personal style on assembly-line product.
Edward D. Wood Jr. (1924-1978) may have lacked technique, but there’s no need at this late date to rehash old arguments for Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda, and Bride of the Monster. The consistent personal style and interior meaning of these films—made in impoverished conditions on the edge of Hollywood—should by now be self-evident. If the test of an auteur is how he/she makes his/her presence felt even in the least advantageous of circumstances, this man qualifies. And as an auteurist case study, Wood becomes only more intriguing when one ventures to the outer fringes of his corpus: the handful of soft- and hard-core pornographic movies he made during the last, troubled decade of his life.
For the die-hard Woodologist, these late-period efforts offer much to savour. Necromania (1971) is pure Wood, from its haunted-house setting to its in-joke references (“Any minute, I expect Bela Lugosi as Dracula”) to its pervasive horror-movie iconography (the final sex scene takes place in a coffin reportedly borrowed from Wood’s old pal Criswell). The Young Marrieds (1972) continues his career-long interrogation of gender norms, and is rich with his trademark pompous dialogue (“Let us be patient, tender, wise, and forgiving in this strange task of living. For if we fail each other, each will be gray driftwood lapsing into the abyss”). I’ve already expounded at length on Wood’s long lost, unfinished, and possibly apocryphal The Only House in Town (1970).
But now, Woodologists face their greatest challenge ever: Ed Wood’s 8mm Porn Loops and Ed’s Wood Volume II, a pair of DVD-Rs from Cinefear that collect Wood’s most subterranean work. In his final years, Wood paid the bills by writing sexy paperback novels and directing short (10 minutes or under), silent 8mm pornographic “loops,” shown in peep-show booths and purchasable by mail order. Unsigned by their author and lacking virtually any trace of his personality, Wood’s 8mm pornographic loops represent the dark matter of his oeuvre, and the final frontier of Wood scholarship. It’s impossible to know the breadth of his output in this medium, but from 1973 to 1975, the beleaguered filmmaker apparently directed at least the first 19 films for the Swedish Erotica brand.
The definitive biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr. (Rudolph Grey, 1992) offers brief but precious insight into the making of these films. Paul Marco, actor in several golden-era Wood films, recalled:
“I think he did some porno films in a little studio in North Hollywood. They were 10 minute long type of things. ‘Little short subjects’ he called them. At one point I kept telling him, ‘When are you going to get back into legitimate?’ He said that’s what kept him alive, doing the loops and writing his books.”
Phil Cambridge, Wood’s colleague at Pendulum Publications:
“When Caballero first started, they just did 8mm movies. They’d put one-liners, captions, on the bottom of the screen, just like silent films. They gave Ed a hundred bucks to write ten movies. There had to be fifty lines in each movie, minimum.” [NOTE: There are definitely fewer than 50 lines in most of them.]
Ted Gorley, cinematographer on Necromania:
“He made a lot of loops. He did a loop where he played a Mexican jailer. Had a dildo and a big sombrero. And he took the girl away, but only for a second. Everybody was laughing so hard we could hardly keep the camera straight. It was an old Swedish Erotica movie, in the old days we did nothing but silent ones.” [NOTE: This Mexican jailer film has never surfaced, and is not listed in any database of Swedish Erotica titles. Film history is poorer without it.]
The Swedish Erotica loops collected on these DVDs have already been exhaustively dissected by Woodologists, notably Joe Blevins and Greg Dziawer in their extraordinary Ed Wood Wednesdays column, and in the invaluable Ed Wood Jr. Facebook group. These scholars have gone a long way to verifying Wood’s authorship, whether by analyzing the subtitled dialogue for Woodian flourishes or cataloguing props that also appear in Necromania/The Young Marrieds. I lack the patience for such a close reading, but I do have the patience to sit through three-and-a-half hours of grindingly repetitive pornographic loops just because Ed Wood directed them, so here are a few first impressions.
The facts of the case: Most of the films open with an “Adult Cinema” logo, all of them are silent, and all of them feature subtitles written by Wood. Wood is beloved for his idiosyncratic dialogue, but try as I might, I could detect none of his distinctive poetry in lines like “This is much better than the zoo,” “It’s soooo big,” and “Here I cume [sic].” The loops typically have about 30-60 seconds of basic narrative set-up—a woman meets her lover in front of his office; a woman seduces her pool cleaner; a driver invites a passing cyclist home— but otherwise are single-mindedly focused on sex. The mis-en-scène, shall we say, is sketchy, but the matted rugs of the films’ bedroom/living-room settings possess a certain time-capsule quality.
Many of the films star John Holmes, whose 13 inches of raw talent would make him the most famous male porn star of his day.* After Bela Lugosi, Holmes probably qualifies as the second most famous celebrity Wood ever worked with (apologies to Tor Johnson, Lyle Talbot and Vampira). By default, the most memorable Wood/Holmes collaboration is probably Big John, for two reasons: 1) It involves Holmes as a pool boy, which means it takes place in and around a pool, and 2) It’s called Big John.
Though I’d like to concern myself with matters of aesthetics, it would be disingenuous to review these films without addressing their main function. Folks, these are silent 8mm loops from the early- to mid-‘70s in middling to poor condition. With my hand on my heart, I swear that I didn’t find them very sexy. I give them 10% on Al Goldstein’s Peter-Meter.
Back to aesthetics. Unsurprisingly, Wood’s camerawork is blandly functional. He makes greater use of zooms than in his golden-era films (for obvious reasons), and uses dissolve editing to an unprecedented degree—an effect that at least one commentator has called “dreamlike.” The most creative pictorial composition comes in Morning Walk, in which a man stands with his backside directed towards the camera and a woman is framed between his legs (shades of The Graduate). She moves towards him to commence her filthy business, in what must count as the most ambitious experiment with screen space in the entire Ed Wood 8mm canon.
I wish I could say the films are all good clean dirty fun, but for every short like Wives at Play (a sunny, outdoor bit of lesbianism), there’s always another one that involves coercion (which always has a way of turning consensual). The line between pain and pleasure is transgressed often in the John Holmes films, where Wood gives him ample opportunity to put his famous instrument in tricky parts of the anatomy.
Is there any trace of Wood’s personal vision in these films? There’s no way of knowing to what extent they reflect his own sexual tastes, but they’re noticeably lacking the transvestism and gender-bending elements that pervaded his novels and personal life. I perked up during Devil Cult, which opens with a woman spread out on a black mattress, candles on either side, with a man who proclaims, “I sacrifice this virgin!” The setting quickly reveals itself to be just another living room, but I was happy to see Wood indulge in his lifelong obsession with the occult. So there’s that.
Wood died in poverty, but Swedish Erotica would become a major porn-world brand, producing over 500 films until 1984 with most of the major porn stars of the day. It’s poignant to realize that around this time, Wood was also trying to sell a mainstream script called The Day the Mummies Danced, to have starred Aldo Ray and John Agar. If these loops offer anything for the Woodologist, perhaps it’s the cognitive dissonance of seeing this most naïve and childlike of filmmakers—a man who was making B-westerns and Bela Lugosi horror films 20 years after they were fashionable—pumping out crude porn.
So, again: there’s that.
*Obligatory mention for the normies: John Holmes was the inspiration for Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights.
Will Sloan is a Woodologist from Toronto. He once interviewed Paul “Kelton the Cop” Marco, spoke on the phone with Conrad Brooks, and has Gregory Walcott’s autograph somewhere. You can hear more of his thoughts on Ed Wood here: https://soundcloud.com/the-important-cinema-club/25-dont-knock-on-ed-wood