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The sheer scope of the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival’s annual offerings is almost overwhelming, prompting hardcore cinephiles to pore over timetables with the exacting earnestness of trainspotters. However, SLIFF’s most memorable experiences are often unobtrusive and unforeseen. In the category of such sneakier pleasures, one much add this past Sunday’s screening of The Movie Orgy, an early work of found-footage inventiveness from this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace).
Co-created in 1968 with producer Jon Davison, The Movie Orgy is that rare breed of cinematic object that appeared decades ahead of the cultural curve. Long before the phrases “mash-up,” “super-cut,” or “remix culture” entered the lexicon, Dante and Davison were splicing together footage from innumerable sources: Atomic Age science-fiction features, serialized tales of police detectives and Texas Rangers, vintage commercials, propaganda films, musical performances, cartoons, talk shows, and newsreels. The filmmakers toured college campuses and small theaters with their celluloid Frankenstein, which originally boasted a running time of over seven hours.
Dante eventually reassembled The Movie Orgy from the original footage into a four-and-a-half-hour cut, and it was this version of the film that SLIFF screened at the Hi-Pointe Theater on Sunday. Dante himself was on hand to introduce the film, affably urging attendees to step out for a cigarette or a pizza at any point, and to return at their discretion. (He also urged the staff to correct the projected aspect ratio early in the screening, a request that was quickly fulfilled.)
Experiencing The Movie Orgy proves to be a kind of ADHD tour of the Boomer generation’s cinematic and televisual memory, assembled with an experimental artist’s audacity and a satirist’s wink. For viewers with childhood memories of pop artifacts like Frankie Valli, You Bet Your Life, and Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Dante and Davison’s film serves as a trippy, relentless cavalcade of remembrances. The Movie Orgy’s raw materials may also strike familiar chords with Gen X and Y filmgoers who grew up with Mystery Science Theater 3000’s re-packaged cheese, such as Burt I. Gordon’s giant monster flicks.
However, The Movie Orgy’s appeal transcends the simplistic nostalgia-tweaking found on Cracker Barrel clearance shelves. Dante and Davison’s palpable affection for the movies—and their prickly awareness of the medium’s manipulative and formulaic character—shine through every surreal clip, cunning cut, and sardonic musical juxtaposition. The film serves as a bold, engrossing illustration of editing’s pivotal role in cinema, and as a long-lost validation of the present-day free culture movement. The Movie Orgy’s marvelous buoyancy and drollness demonstrate that the repurposing of existing works is (and always has been) an art form that can amuse, surprise, and provoke.