Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Ghost Train: The Lost Pauline Kael Review of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)

This post is in participation with Cinemastyles’ Spirit of Ed Wood Blog-A-Thon, organized in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Plan 9 From Outer Space, but covering any and everything remotely related to Mr. Wood... or that exudes that rare Ed Wood Feeling. Put a bookmark in your copy of Death of a Transvestite, pour a glass of Imperial whiskey and get busy reading! Most of the articles are along the lines of re-(re)-evaluating Wood’s life and work, but Exploding Kinetoscope offers a special history-making report.

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Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies, the 1965 book spanning her pre-New Yorker work from 1954-1965, is generally understood to be the critic’s first collected volume. Following Kael’s death in 2001, references were found in personal papers to a small press volume predating the publication of I Lost It, though no copy was located in Kael’s personal collection. After several years of scrambling and red herring sniffing by film historians, Kael obsessives, and rare book collectors, only a handful of copies (three in total, two complete, none in better than VG condition) have surfaced. Going Down On the Movies, (according to indicia) published by Trap Street Press, 1960, collects various Kael juvenilia, scattered previously published reviews from KPFA radio broadcasts and pieces from magazines (City Lights, Holiday, McCall's, etc.) not represented in I Lost It – even a small collection of screening notes and capsule reviews handed out to patrons of the Berkeley Cinema Guild in the late ‘50s.

The two copies of Going Down to enter the marketplace were snatched up at four-figure prices (on AbeBooks for $1200 and a tense eBay auction closing at $3650). Luckily, one fell into the hands of a rare bookseller in Los Angeles, who has graciously allowed a digital scan of the cover, and photocopying of the following excerpt. Special thanks to Blue Room Books of Los Angeles.

The Exploding Kinetoscope proudly presents Pauline Kael’s review of Plan 9 From Outer Space, reprinted for the first time since 1960.

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With the unfancy plainness of a nightmare being reported by The March of Time, anything goes in "Plan 9 From Outer Space", so long as it is weird, shuddery, sexed-up and antisocial. Martians [sic] with a taste for the sensual (they wear satin pajamas, their space-aircraft carrier shaped like a mammary gland... one is named “Eros”) and distaste for Earthly violence, resolve to end the arms race. Along for the ride, and part of that Ninth Plan, are marching ghouls who handle the dirty work – they’re freak-cartoon parodies of lives no one ever lived: a vampy wastrel beatnikess, a rasping butterball Swede cop, and Bela Lugosi.

“Plan 9 From Outer Space” is set and shot in the corners of Los Angeles where most movies would not be caught dead — the far-ends of choked boulevards where traffic wears out, the dollhouse suburbs of Burbank, and subterranean studios which house pateboard sets, painted cloth backdrops indicating skies and lumpy rugs serving as grass. The matter-of-fact presentational style of director Edward Wood is so honest and unglamorous that the homemade anonymity of the sets seems to be a point unto itself. Wood also wrote the swozzled script, which keeps throwing out corkers until they finally pile up into something like thematic unity. There’s a satirist’s glee in the movie’s conundrum about violence and military secrets, and before you know it the American heroes and the hostile spacemen have swapped places; the visitors have come to halt the progress of advanced weapons before we blow ourselves away, but their deadly Plan 9 is like beating a dog for chasing squirrels. Everybody’s wrong, but it’s hard to hate them for it. It’s an evolutionary and political stalemate. A little scaredy-cat cop rolls up his sleeves, climbs into a grave and groans “why do I always get hooked up with these spook details?” — Hamlet, gravedigger, and Stan Laurel rolled into one. The human scale is always dragged back into it. A compassionate colonel tells us “Then they attacked a town. A small town, I’ll admit, but nevertheless a town of people. People who died.” We're all eventually hooked up on spook detail. One hopes that future doomsday comedies will have the guts not to hammer the jokes to the wall, the sophistication not to drown the horror in cynicism or sheer scale. Whenever the movie paints itself into a political corner it drops the brush and levitates over the wet floor: a square-jaw reacts to a (hypocritical) pacifistic alien’s speech by popping his opponent in the mouth.

The kitsch has handily been drained out of the material in advance thanks to the spare, rawboned style. In a brainstorm of flying saucers, misty cemeteries, walking corpses, plastic skeletons, and cadaverous vampires, Wood keeps piling up the spook show gimmicks until they achieve a kind of loony grandeur. The picture isn’t overly fat (and it runs 79 minutes), but it’s maybe a little crazy. Wood is like a carnival barker doing a last push before closing time, but when you climb into this ghost train, the insides aren’t all hype, but crisp, chilly, and fresh. The spirit of Nouvelle Vague hangs about this spookhouse. Though the camerawork offers no pyrotechnics, Wood slices Lugosi’s death scene short — when the old fellow is splattered by a speeding auto, the shot cuts off with his consciousness, a life compacted into ten seconds of smelling a flower and being creamed by an unseen Packard. In the middle of languid scenes, the jump cuts bounce us to unexpected perspectives. With clever miniatures and a bizarre but striking eye for stock footage, Wood places his spaceships over freeways and television studios. Nowhere particularly photogenic, just someplace real.

“Plan 9” also merges the threadbare, daily life reality of Hollywood (the neighborhood, not the fairyland) and Burbank with the wooziest, spookiest dreamworld since “The Mummy”. In that film, Karl Freund’s camera caressed every crease in Boris Karloff’s makeup, as if his cadaverous cheeks were dusted with fragments of ancient broken hearts. Edward Wood slides into a similar thick, fever-dream pool for all the spook stuff. His ghouls shuffle toward us out of a black velvet void, or appear in their weird Gothic glory in the middle of tatty suburban bedrooms. And like in so many very bad dreams, everyone screams and flinches and motions to escape, but doesn’t seem able to run. The way the young lady playing Lugosi’s wife (“Vampira” the film hostess from television, and a sex kitten, sure, but with a dead rat in her mouth) moves her body, we can’t be sure she was alive in the first place. In the clammiest scene, a rotund police detective rises from his grave, and the darkness swirling around the hole makes his whitened visage into a morbid, grimacing moon.

Burly Tor Johnson plays Inspector Clay as a giant in body and spirit. He’s one of those fellows that was built for underlings to scurry beneath and hang by their fingernails from his every word. The big man gives off erotic energy like an oil drum on fire, even when no women are around. When he laughs off danger, chuckling to a pal “I’m a big boy now, Johnny!,” we half expect Johnny to sigh “don’t I know it!” Johnson looks so fierce among a cast of scrawny beat cops that we imagine no force in the rest of the movie could tangle with him: this guy could eat two of those flying saucers for breakfast. So when the most magnetic character in the picture does, in fact, meet his match, nothing could be tenser. Maybe no death on the screen has had such emotional wallop since “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Thankfully, Johnson isn’t entirely out of the picture after this — his white-eyed creep is a walking case of the heebie-jeebies.

“Plan 9” never loses that sexiness, though it admittedly decreases once Inspector Clay goes mute (he becomes less a villain than a beautiful, melancholy bear, befuddled and forced by captors to maim enemies). When appealing hero Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott, who shone for a brief moment as an MP in the dismal “Mister Roberts”) heads off on military mission and says goodbye to his wife, Paula. We start to roll our eyes, because it’s the sappiest of scenarios, lovers parted, the warrior going off to battle. We’re expecting fake feelings, false nobility, unwarranted nobility, maybe all three. But the music starts purring strange lazy draubs of Martin Denny style jazz, Paula coos to Jeff that she’s intending to maul his pillow as a substitute lover. It’s very probably the wiggiest, earthiest expression of libidinal heat between married people ever put on screen. The Trents job in any other movie would be as bloodless good citizens; Wood and his actors make Jeff burn at his center with righteous indignation (at anyone, everything), and Paula is flush with good humor. Between the Trents, Insepctor Clay and the shouty little monkey cop, the Earthlings are a rowdy, worthy crew to go up against the wacked out spacemen and, for that matter, their haunted, soulless dead slaves. The movie is a whole funfair midway full of interesting folks. Among the aliens, Dudley Manlove plays the funniest, Eros, as a big soft baby, always raging, petulant, or sleepy. When he rants about the logical conclusion of the human arms race— a hair-raising vision of a sun-exploding bomb — Manlove's apoplexy blows off the screen, making the whole idea of 3D movies look superfluous. As Eros' boss, John Breckenridge marshals a queenly regality — he’s somehow swishy and sinister and a lot of fun. As he explains the science of how the dead will be animated, the details are authentic sounding, but The Ruler yawns through it like the caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland”.

Presiding over the other characters, famous TV personality Criswell narrates, sometimes on screen, and he sounds mournful and despairing, his eyes look off into the netherworld distance. He warns of Death the Proud Brother, of time and fate and doom locked in confusing dance, and even insinuates that some of these screen devils may follow us out of the theater. "Perhaps, on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it... for they will be from outer space,” he says, the perfect parody embodiment of this age’s anxieties — Space Race, invisible agents, privacy violation. Almost all of Cris’s speeches have some knockout idea buried in the poetry. Wood the screenwriter uses him like a Biblical prophet coming down from Mount Lee, to articulate his most lyrical themes.

“Plan 9”’s greatest trick is one I don’t think we’ve ever seen on a movie screen. Edward Wood turns hokey kid’s Poverty Row stuff into something freaky; he doesn’t try for glitz and fail, neither does he wallow. It’s easier to say what “Plan 9” is not than what it is. The movie spins like a Hula Hoop, gyrating between slightly stoned slice-of-life skits, the inspired blood-curdling stuff, grungy reality and, we may as well go ahead and say it, the strangest dreams expressed on film since Dreyer, or maybe Méliès. Waking up from a dream — and so with “Plan 9 From Outer Space” — we’re stupefied for a second. What just happened? Criswell asks us the impossible question: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?”


Greg said...

Chris, that was flat-out brilliant. This aside alone - " Gregory Walcott, who shone for a brief moment as an MP in the dismal “Mister Roberts” - is worth the price of admission. An uncanny duplication of the force known as Kael.

And fantastic work on the cover of the book. Thanks so much for participating. I really appreciate it.

Rick Olson said...

This is hilarious. I am in awe. Well done!

Marilyn said...

Steaming, refried Kael - my favorite vegetable! Well done!

MARK J. HANSEN said...

That book cover is one of the funniest things I've ever seen! Loved this, thanks!

Pax Romano said...

Quite possibly the best thing I have ever read, on any blog, concerning any subject, EVER!

Three cheers, my clever friend!

Ed Howard said...

Wow, it takes real guts to parody Kael. Nice job!!!

Erich Kuersten said...

My god, Chris, this brilliant as hell. I had a similar idea once after a huge Kael binge, but just couldn't pull it off, now I'm glad since nothing I could write would stand up to this! You nailed it.

I love that Tor "becomes less a villain than a beautiful, melancholy bear, befuddled and forced by captors to maim enemies.

It's true! I thought I was the only one who cried at the zombification of that big dumb bald Swede. Damn you, Kodos! Damn... you!

And the cover is hilarious, not only would Kael be proud, BORGES would be proud!

Katharine said...

this was amazing. thank you.

Matt said...

As great as this review is, that book cover is even better.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Not a common place parody but a slaved-over pastiche, honoring both the critic and the irreplacable movie.