The Comedic Genius of “The Movie Orgy”

A few weeks ago, the BAM Cinematek ran a retrospective on Joe Dante where they showed films curated by Dante himself. The selection ranged from Dante’s own filmography to his influences, but one movie shown was essentially a mix of both: “The Movie Orgy.” Put together by Dante when he was a college student, “The Movie Orgy” is a collection of commercials and film clips from the 50s to 60s.

Dante, who was at the BAM to briefly introduce the film, told the audience that the original “Movie Orgy” ran for seven hours, but the editing process throughout the years whittled it down to 4 ½. That length, combined with the film’s fragmented nature, led to Dante saying that it was all right and completely expected to take bathroom and smoke breaks or to even leave the theater altogether.

Yet, by the time “The Movie Orgy” finished running, the theater room was as still packed as it had been when the film began. Sure, people took breaks—I myself took two to use the bathroom—but from an immediate survey of the room both before and after the film, very few people had actually left the theater.

I think part of the reason why so little people left the theater had to do with what Dante achieved in creating “The Movie Orgy.” He may have been the director of the film, but it was his editing skills that made “The Movie Orgy” what it is: a comedic experience that turns the audience into a community. Take for example, Dante’s inclusion of William J. Hole Jr.’s 1959 “Speed Crazy.” Like the other films in “The Movie Orgy,” Dante splices clips of “Speed Crazy” throughout his own film, and the result is a creation of mini-narratives.

What made “Speed Crazy” so memorable among the plethora of clips included in “The Movie Orgy,” was its protagonist Nick Barrow (Brett Halsey), a veritable asshole. Barrow starts fights on a whim, molests women, and spouts his own egotistical philosophy on how the world is trying to get him. Perhaps shocking for its time of release, in our own period, the idea that a character as extremely mad as Barrows is, was written, is absurdly comedic.

This comedy is heightened by Barrow’s catchphrase which he says whenever he’s caught in a jam. “No one crowds Nick Barrow!” Dante splices “Speed Crazy” so as to only include scenes with that phrase, and the first time it was said, the audience was sent into one giant fit of laughter. After two scenes of “Speed Crazy,” it became apparent what Dante was doing with this specific film. The result was that whenever “Speed Crazy” came on, there was a silent anticipation for that punchline: “No one crowds Nick Barrow!”

We, as the audience, were all in on the joke. Dante had created that community through the editing of the clips and so the seriousness of the 50s and 60s became the comedic irony of the aughts.

“The Movie Orgy” is also time capsule, giving us a glimpse into the culture of an older America. Most significantly, the economic boom and anxieties following WWII. To paraphrase Dante, it’s also a political statement on America at the time. Earlier, I mentioned how Dante’s editing process of the film turned the audience into a community through it’s comedy, but I want to specifically discuss how “The Movie Orgy’s” comedy through editing works.

In essence, Dante creates a dialogue between the film and commercial clips—at times literal, at times metaphorical. This dialogue is how Dante transforms “The Movie Orgy” from just a simple cultural archive to watch and into something he himself takes an active participatory role in.

One example of the film’s subversive political tone is in how Dante pokes fun at Richard Nixon. A clip begins to play with a voice-over narrator warning the audience that the man in mentioning is a monster, a menace, someone to be feared. Dante then cuts that clip short and plugs in the beginnings of a speech Nixon was given. This is how that dialogue between clips is played out. It’s the Kuleshov effect at perhaps its finest.

And at its core, that’s how “The Movie Orgy” can be interpreted. An exercise in the contrast between images. One that’s both funny and political, giving insight into the culture of the time, as well Dante’s own beliefs. I’m unsure of how audiences reacted to the film when it was originally released. Perhaps the commercials that were only a few years old for the audiences back then were already absurd. One thing is for sure, however. That absurdity is present in our own culture and so a new dimension of comedy opens outside of Dante’s editing, and that’s comedic irony. Whether it’s watching a commercial seriously recommend eating a stick of butter for your health—it lubes up your arteries for better digestion—or to duck and cover in the case of a nuclear attack, “The Movie Orgy” achieves a comedic timelessness. It’s a shame that due to the nature of the film, a proper home release is a legal nightmare. Consequently, there are zero chances of a digital release seeing the light of day, thus making this film, unfortunately, a very rare watch.

 

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