Film Length and the Death of Entertainment

Robot MonsterWhen it comes to psychotronic films, you will often find short films. For example, Robot Monster, which is just 62 minutes or Bride of the Gorilla, which is 70 minutes. But this is unusual. When The Reduced Shakespeare Company got their first contract, their act was one hour long and the company that was going to be booking them told them that they had to make the show at least 90 minutes. That’s the key. If people are going to pay for a play, they expect at least an hour and a half.

But things used to be different at the movies. You go into the theater. You see a newsreal. Then there’s a cartoon. Next comes the B feature and then the A feature. That’s entertainmaint! That’s perhaps three hours of entertainment. It sure beats what you get today: one or more commercials, as if you hadn’t paid $8.50 to get into the theater and then paid $7.00 for some stale popcorn. Then you get a bunch of trailers for movies you don’t want to see. And finally, the “feature presentation” — as if there were any presentation other than ads.

So in the 1950s, you could get away with an hour long film, because there would be two of them. Today, you just get one film. And it isn’t just one and a half hours long. Sometimes it is two and a half hours. Sometimes it is four hours.

Okay, sometimes it’s worth it. Schindler’s List was over three hours long, and that’s not even counting the ten minutes you sit in the theater seat sobbing. Long films can be great! But usually it is something more like Marvel’s The Avengers, two and a half hour green screen action that is hard to follow and pointless if you do manage.

Brief Introduction to Dramatic Structure

Regardless of how you chop a film up, it has three acts. (Forget Shakespeare and five acts; they could all be divided into three acts.) The first act sets up what’s going to happen. The second act is just wasting time because you don’t want the story too short. And the third act resolves everything.

In an hour and a half film, that comes down to this:

  • First act: 20 minutes
  • Second act: 60 minutes
  • Third act: 10 minutes

I’m sure you see the problem. That second act is way too long. A good writer will make it interesting. But generally, a whole hour to fill is dull.

But look at how it is for an hour long film:

  • First act: 20 minutes
  • Second act: 30 minutes
  • Third act: 10 minutes

Now you only have a half hour to fill with the characters running around looking for an ending. You sit in the theater and before you know it, the film is over! Something goes wrong, the characters have to overcome it, and the film ends. With the hour and a half film, there has to to be two, three, maybe even four unbelievable conflicts that have to be overcome. If you came to the theater tired, you slept through at least a third of act two. And if you’re unlucky, it was the last third and you missed the end of film. Hopefully, you came to the film with a friend who can explain the whole thing.

I love short films because they get on with the story. Longer films go on for no reason. Especially in an action film, I don’t need to see another fight scene. And I certainly don’t need to see a 15 minute fight scene when a 2 minute scene would do. (I’m talking to you John Woo!) Because I like a little reality in my films.

Usually, in real life, something goes wrong, you deal with it, and then you move on. Real life isn’t: something goes wrong, you deal with it, but then something else goes wrong, so you deal with it. But then something else goes wrong. That kind of writing is designed to justify the ridiculously large budgets of modern films that you don’t want to see anyway.

A New Movie Experience

If I had my druthers, I would go back to the old days. Start with a 10-minute documentary on something — anything. Then a cartoon — maybe one with that animal and an acorn (those never get tired). And then a low-budget hour-long film. And then an hour long film with some stars. I’d pay $15.00 for that. I’d certainly pay $15.00 for it before I would Avengers: Infinity War in 3-D.

–Frank Moraes

The Unfortunate Beginning of Psychotronic Film

The Fifty Worst Films of All Time - The Unfortunate Beginning of Psychotronic Film

There have long been admires of the strange and incompetent in film. But as a definable thing, we really have to go back to 1978 and Harry Medved’s The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Note that these were not primarily psychotronic films. Medved is a film lover (and I dare say a psychotronic film lover), so he didn’t primarily go after low budget films. Many of them were big budget films like the 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon. And others were smash successes like Airport 1975. There’s not one Ed Wood film in the book, although it does have a fair share of independent cheapies.

But Medved writes in the introduction of the book:

At this point, we might as well come clean and make an embarrassing confession: we get a kick out of bad films. What’s more, we’re convinced we’re not alone. How else can you possibly explain the continued popularity of TV’s “Late Late Shows” unless you assume there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who take a perverse pleasure in particularly ludicrous entertainments?

Those who know me, will know that I shudder a few times reading even that small quote. But I believe that Harry Medved was about 16-years-old when he wrote it. And I can’t but think that he has matured in his thinking, even if he hasn’t reached my point of understanding that in these supposedly bad films, there are things to love.

Attack of The Golden Turkey Awards

Sadly, two years later, Harry Medved hooked up with his older brother Michael Medved to write The Golden Turkey Awards. It makes sense that Michael would go on to be a professional reviewer, because he has all the arrogance and lack of creativity that is required in a film “critic.” This book is far less academic than the first, and goes after low budget films much more. Most sad of all, The Golden Turkey Awards was much more successful than The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.

The book even attacks Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a classic. If you can’t see the art in that film, I’m afraid that you are hopeless. I will doubtless discuss the book more later, but I simply can’t find my copy at the moment.

How Plan 9 From Outer Space Got Smeared

This led to everyone “knowing” that Ed Wood was the worst director of all time and that Plan 9 From Outer Space was the worst film. These aren’t even debatable claims; they are simply wrong. The main thing Wood lacked was a second unit director. And Plan 9 From Outer Space is actually a fairly enjoyable film if you just sit down and watch it. I suspect 90 percent of the people who complain about Plan 9 have only ever seen what was in Ed Wood.

But the main thing to remember about The Golden Turkey Awards is that it was hugely influential. Although Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic TV (started in 1980) was not based on it, it’s clear that the Medved brothers had opened a niche in film criticism. The fact that they did it in a grotesque way doesn’t really matter.

The Defining of Psychotronic Film

Although the Medveds made their money, it is Michael Weldon who stands as the king of the genre because his approach was the opposite of theirs. He appreciated them — warts and all — and sometimes because of the warts.

I do sometimes get a chuckle out of something going terribly wrong. When I watch Plan 9 and the headstones tip because the grass carpet is pulled, I always smile. But I also remember what Wood says in the movie Ed Wood when one of the backers complains about this, “Nobody will ever notice that. Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It’s about the big picture!”

He’s right. When I first saw the film, I didn’t notice this or any number of other problems. That’s because I was involved with the story. And 90 percent of viewers are the same way. This is why films panned by “critics” are often huge successes. And anyone who listens to “critics” is a fool.

Most people will enjoy Plan 9 much more than Die Wand. I love them both. But most people will find Die Wand very slow — and too intellectual. Plan 9 From Outer Space, on the other hand, is action-packed. It is filled with that 1950s American plucky optimism, even while the theme of the film is subversive. But you’d have a hard time finding a professional “critic” recommending Plan 9 over Die Wand.

“Oh, the Pain”

It’s sad that psychotronic film as a genre had such unfortunate beginnings. This is especially true because most people are still stuck in The Golden Turkey Awards way of looking at these films. I, always tending toward messianic behavior, want to see that change. With it’s disreputable beginnings with the Medved brothers (although I understand that they weren’t focusing on psychotronic film, since the concept hadn’t even been invented yet), it is amazing that psychotronic film has come so far.

Here is a quote from Bill Warren in Flying Saucers Over Hollywood (available in some versions of Plan 9 From Outer Space) about the film that the Medveds would have us believe is the worst film ever made:

It’s interesting all the way through and that’s more than you can say about a lot of pictures, because the biggest sin a film can commit is being dull. And Plan 9, whatever it is, is not dull.

(Warren also says, “The fact that he made these pictures against all odds, including his total lack of talent as a filmmaker, I think is what speaks the best of him. I mean, he really wanted to do this. And he did it. And the big difference between Ed Wood and his detractors like the Medveds and other people who really put him down and said he was not just a bad filmmaker but a worthless filmmaker — which is two different things — is that he actually made these movies by God.”)

When a person laughs at poor quality filmmaking, it is usually a sign that they know nothing about how movies are made. But laugh at these films all you like — as long as you also respect them. Because they deserve to be respected, as Harry Medved understood. (The less said about his brother the better.) In the same documentary, an older and wiser Harry Medved reflects on Ed Wood’s later life, “I think that it really broke him, the fact that he ended up directing super-8 movies for some porno series called The Encyclopedia of Sex. This is not a job for a guy who made such classics as Plan 9 and Bride of the Monster and Glen or Glenda.”

Afterword: Ed Wood Box Set

Ed Wood BoxCheck it out: The Ed Wood Box. It contains a film that I haven’t seen (although I’m not a huge Ed Wood fan). This looks like a collection that every psychotronic film lover should own. It includes: Glen or Genda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls, and The Haunted World of Ed Wood (more a special features disc than a documentary).