Monday, April 17, 2023

The Funhouse interview: Balthazar Clementi on Pierre Clementi

Here are two excerpts from the Funhouse interview with Balthazar Clementi that explores the life and career of his father, French actor-filmmaker Pierre Clementi, best known in America for his scene-stealing roles in Bunuel’s Belle de Jour and Bertolucci’s The Conformist, as well as his starring turns in cult films like Bertolucci’s Partner, Marc’o’s Les Idoles, and Liliana Cavani’s The Year of the Cannibals

We covered a lot of ground in the hour in which we spoke; the result was three visually stunning Funhouse episodes that emphasized Pierre’s work as a filmmaker but also spotlighted a few of his best-loved film performances.

In this excerpt I start out mentioning the comparisons by film historians of Pierre's work to Kenneth Anger, most likely because they both used dense overlaid imagery in their films. We then discuss the in-camera process Pierre used to create those overlaid images. Balthazar maintained in a question after this that Pierre was directly influenced only by one filmmaker — his friend (whose films he appeared in), Etienne O’Leary, a Canadian who made a trio of influential short avant-garde films in France, and then stopped making films due to medical problems. (O’Leary also appeared in Clementi’s films, sealing the bond of mutual admiration.)


In this clip we talk about how Clementi’s life changed after his famous 1972 arrest in Italy in the early Seventies (on a trumped-up drug charge) that led to him losing a year and a half of his career while being in prison. Upon his release, he had even less interest in doing acting work for money’s sake and was known to literally give away the money he made.

The interview with Balthazar was done in conjunction with a festival of Pierre Clementi’s films at MoMA. The other tie-ins concerned the release of a limited edition “Integrale” box of Clementi’s films (containing the nine films on both Blu-ray discs and DVDs, with optional English subs; still available as of this writing) and the long-awaited English translation of Clementi’s 1970s memoir (and essay on the prison state in Italy) <i>A Few Personal Messages</i>, from the small press actually called Small Press.

The interview, which was audio-only on this occasion, was conducted in Central Park, a first for the Funhouse! Here is a pic of Balthazar and me after our talk. He was quite forthcoming in our talk (providing very personal remarks about his birth and his father's later life), for which I thank him. (Thanks also go to Ivan Galietti, for his great translation, heard on these clips.)

Friday, April 7, 2023

Notes on the screening of 'The Movie Orgy' (aka 'Son of Movie Orgy') at Anthology Film Archives — plus, the best 'Orgy' clips found online

There is nothing like the moviegoing experience. And there are movies that depend on that experience to be successfully enjoyed. One of these is Joe Dante and Jon Davison’s much-talked-about but too-little-seen movie-clip marathon The Movie Orgy (started in 1966; reshown and rebuilt for a decade after that).

The film fits in very comfortably with the Sixties ethos of nostalgia-loving and inserting b&w movie clips into weird places. Certain moments in it — where more famous old-time movie stars are seen “reacting” to other, unrelated footage (usually a B-feature with few recognizable faces) — is so Sixties that I’m not sure what today’s audience as a whole make of it. In fact, a lot of Movie Orgy moves along at a very fast clip, but it also incorporates the equivalent of abridged versions of various B-pictures, so it does end up telling complete stories, in fact several of them.

So what actually is the Orgy? It began as an idea for a movie “happening,” according to Joe Dante, based on the fact that colleges in the mid-Sixties were presenting showings of the serials of the ’30s and ’40s, with all the chapters shown in one marathon screening. Dante and Davidson thus created their own movie marathon, made up of various segments from B-features, plus numerous other items they had found on 16mm — scenes from more high-profile major-studio films from the past, TV episodes from the Fifties (with the spotlight on children’s TV), TV commercials, educational films, and even stag reels. 

The B features that we see a lot of include The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Tarantula, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and The Giant Claw. The non-monster pics include the high-key crime/car race drama Speed Crazy and the Albert Zugsmith epic College Confidential. (Not one of Steve Allen’s better moments.) A Western movie serial and some Western B-features are thrown into the mix — something an audience brought up in the Fifties would immediately relate to (but today’s younger viewers encounter the Old West primarily through video games, not an endless flow of low-budget oaters).

The younger Joe Dante.
I saw the Orgy the other evening at the invaluable Anthology Film Archives here in Manhattan (which is showing the compilation once more, on Monday, April 10). The film was shown at its present length, around four hours and 45 minutes. (Originally the “happening” version at the Philadelphia College of Art where Dante and Davidson went to school ran up to seven hours.) No admission charge was in place to see the film, as the clips in it were never licensed and it can only be shown in not-for-profit contexts.

My own reaction to Orgy is that it’s a load of fun but is overly long for something viewed with an audience that is passive. The filmgoers at Anthology seemed to enjoy it on the whole and did laugh at many of the gags created by the intercutting of footage (with some other items playing out to stone silence), but aside from laughter, the viewers were taking in the project as if it were a narrative film of its own. No friendly outbursts from this crowd — for a film that seemed to have been made for audience interaction of some sort. (Dante mentioned singalongs to the theme songs for the kids shows included in the compilation; my audience was mostly too young to know “M-I-C… See ya real soon!… K-E-Y ... M-O-U-S-E”)

It was very apparent that Orgy was a product of the Sixties and early Seventies, when movie viewers smoked pot in the theaters for even the straightest films (I remember this distinctly as a kid during that era), never mind a movie-clip extravaganza. Alas, no one is going to light up in a 2023 NYC movie theater. Nor did the Anthology viewers seem drunk in any way, or, in many cases, aware of who the old-time stars were who would pop in for “cameos” that no doubt got very big reactions back when the Orgy was playing for an audience steeped in old movies (thanks to repeated TV showings) and, most likely, drunk or stoned to the gills. (Dante has noted in interviews that he and Davidson did strike a deal with Schlitz beer, who had the compilation shown at various colleges with free beer given to anyone in attendance.)

So, given this more “reverent” than knowing crowd reaction, the film was indeed really wonderful for the first two hours, then seemed to move at a slower pace in the third and fourth hours (as the B-movie scenes lasted longer onscreen and more of their plots was offered), only to become wonderfully insane again in the last 45 minutes, as all the B-movie monsters seen earlier on finally met their terrible fates at the hands of the innocuous, nearly anonymous, heroes and heroines who defeated them with scientific know-how (or just a lotta dynamite).

The Orgy was clearly the creation of movie-crazed minds, so it initially seemed to not have a “point” other than sheer pleasure. As it moves on, though, one becomes aware that it is a wily deconstruction of 1950s American mores through the lens of a Nixon-era sensibility. (If that wasn’t apparent, not one but two of Nixon’s most famous pre-Presidency moments were included to be mocked by audience members, although none of that happened in this screening.)

On the whole, despite the overwhelming nature of the film and the absence of an interactive audience (although one gent was laughing up a storm at various points), I’m glad I saw Orgy — actually titled “Son of The Movie Orgy” in this digitized version prepared by Dante himself — as it truly is a piece of “incredibly strange” movie history. It also, like every film mash-up, from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it edits in Chuck Workman’s montages of movie scenes to Godard’s masterpiece Histoire(s) du Cinema, makes the cinephile try to i.d. each sequence. (Orgy is very easy to figure out; Godard’s history of cinema requires additional research.)

And thus, some clips to convey what Orgy is about, and to spotlight some of the best “finds” in this stew of clips. First, an interview with Dante, who explains how the project came about, and how he brought it back to life in this century. 
Then a “trailer” for the film, which includes a glimpse at one of the oddest items in the whole thing, a film made by the British sketch comedy group The Establishment (to be shown in the nightclub of the same name). Peter Cook narrates (he owned the club), Eleanor Bron is the nurse, and Jonathan Miller (who was a doctor in real life) plays the surgeon. It's also been officially noted that the short film proper doesn't exist in the U.K. any longer, so this might be your only chance to get a glimpse of it. It begins at 2:10.


A quicker trailer shows the opening montage of movie stills, which definitely places the compilation in the late Sixties. (It’s like a film student’s crazed version of the Joe Franklin opening montage.)


One of the biggest boffo moments in the whole 4:45 came when an episode of “Andy’s Gang” appeared. A strange children’s show for any era, the series starred Andy Devine and Froggy the Gremlin, plus a little “band” comprised of taxidermied animals engineered to look like they were making music (decades before the Survival Research Laboratory!). This did completely crack up the Anthology audience.


Another sequence that did put the AFA audience into hysterics is this old classic. I loved Abbott and Costello as a kid but have had little impulse to rewatch their movies as an adult (not so with Fields and the Marxes — who are both in Orgy, and Laurel and Hardy). But the “Susquehanna Hat Company” routine has always made me laugh out loud. (And the end is the height of vaudeville anarchy as the shop owner takes an axe to his own goods.)


The most curious inclusions in Orgy — one could easily call them “spoilers” indicating the era that it was made — were the three instances of newer clips that were inserted. One already mentioned was the Establishment short film (seen in two fragments, one being a mock ad for the Labour party and the other being the operation sketch). Another was a closing “Thought for the Day” dispensed by a young priest whose Christ is falling off his crucifix and has to be reattached with a staple gun (reportedly a student film made by another student at the Philadelphia College of Art). 

The longest example of this is one of my fave clips, Funhouse favorite and interview subject Robert Staats giving the pitch for the “Fabulous Judeo-Christian Good Guy Kit” in Harry Hurwitz’s The Projectionist (1971). Staats is of course wonderfully funny (although the AFA audience laughed sporadically, as some of the quicker lines were darker ones that hint that the kit is only for those who *don’t* want to be actual good guys…). Dante and Davison not only show the mock-commercial in its entirety, but they keep Hurwitz’s follow-up: various images of Heaven culled from old movies. (Hurwitz was one of the all-time masters at incorporating vintage Golden Age footage into his nostalgia-drenched comedies.)


The piece de resistance in terms of the opposite of the above, real commercials that seemed ridiculously ill-conceived, was a Bufferin ad campaign with the tagline “strong medicine for sensitive people.” The sensitive people include a Black social worker having to relocate an old White couple; a mother whose husband is going a “Great Santini” number on their son, trying to make him macho with the gift of a rifle; a draft board member who has to deal with a small business owner (Dolph Sweet) begging him to not draft his only young worker; and a college administrator who is dealing with teenage protesters on his campus. 

The campaign is a stunner and, according to Dante, only ran once (or was shelved entirely after being shot and edited). It remains an amazing concept and a definite link to the late Sixties.


The other clip that was a humdinger but is sadly not online was one of those Art Linkletter moments where you realized that his humor was just as sadistic as Allen Funt’s (actually more so). Hosting a “stunt” game show, Linkletter tells us they found a woman with a phobia for mice. He’s going to ask her to reach into a box of rats to fetch a 10-dollar bill. The lady is brought out and is very disturbed by the prospect of rats brushing by her hand; she turns the offer down. 

Linkletter increases the money amount over and over until it reaches $100 and the lady agrees to reach in the box. At this point Linkletter, who has been holding a magician’s box with no back, moves it as if the rats are trying to leap out of the box toward her — but the “rats” in question are just pads over which a woman’s hair is arranged (called “rats” back in the ‘50s). We the audience knew this all along, and in classic sadistic game show fashion, the studio audience is laughing up a storm over the woman being in terror of rats. (Maury Povich’s “Phobia!” episodes thus had a precursor — and, again, Art L. is shown to be a devious guy [who of course hated hippies, blaming them for the death of his daughter, a story that the original Orgy viewers surely knew].) 

The most interesting thing about researching this piece was that I discovered one viewer who saw a longer cut of the Orgy stating two themes that were cut from the version I saw: the annoyance of child actors (conveyed through a montage featuring a plethora of kiddie material that Dante and Davison had access to) and the repetition of a slur for Japanese people that reflected the fact that movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood did have a harsh underside — conveyed in the version I saw by a clip where an upper-middle-class woman mocks her Black maid to her husband. 

Perhaps the way to get audiences in the 2020s to react like those in the ‘60s and ‘70s would be the most obvious one — provide them with free pizza (Dante notes over and over again in interviews that people would bring munchies to the showings of the film), CBD gummies (for a contemporary audience), or free liquid stimulants. (Schlitz not necessary.) 

Some info contained in this piece (esp. the identification of the newer pieces that weren’t made by Harry Hurwitz) came from a 2015 thesis on the film by David Ruane Neary that is posted online.