Dec 3, 2014
While the obscenely offbeat avant-garde horror flick Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977) seems to be a completely original film that one-time auteur George Barry seems to have dreamed up upon reading too much Victorian Gothic horror literature by Sheridan Le Fanu and possibly even Count Eric Stenbock and jerking off to Aubrey Beardsley paintings while tripping on LSD, I am going to have to assume that the filmmaker most certainly was influenced by the later films of American experimental filmmaker James Broughton (Mother’s Day, The Pleasure Garden), especially his hedonistic celluloid celebration of everybody's favorite piece of furniture, The Bed (1968). Indeed, The Bed is certainly the Death Bed of the American avant-garde, as well as the quintessential American counterculture flick as a work that mindlessly celebrates virtually every form of sexual hedonism so as to also ‘legitimize’ the sexual vices of auteur Broughton who, although married with children, would abandon his wife and children a couple years after completing the film to be with a young man that was 35 years his junior. The genesis of the film was when Belgian film specialist and curator Jacques Ledoux came to the United States in 1967 seeking films for the next year’s Experimental Film Competition, which he organized, and came up with the novel idea of giving away free 16mm color film stock to various previous contest participants in the hope they would create new films for the upcoming event, with Broughton being one of those lucky filmmakers who obliged the rather supportive Western European cineaste. The Bed also marked the rebirth of Broughton as both an artist and filmmaker. While his work The Pleasure Garden (1953)—a “poetic fantasy” shot on black-and-white 35mm film stock and filmed in England in collaboration with the director’s then boy toy Kermit Sheets featuring various professionals, including comedic actress Hattie Jacques, filmmaker Lindsay Anderson, and prolific British actor John Le Mesurier—was such a hit that French poet/auteur Jean Cocteau presented Broughton with an award for it at the Cannes Festival Film and the director was even offered the opportunity to direct a film in Hollywood (which he absurdly turned down), The Bed is arguably the director's most celebrated, pioneering, and greatest known work to date. Although Broughton was in his mid-50s when he directed it, the film was quite revolutionary for its time in that it supposedly featured more nudity than any other film during its time (in fact, the only film lab to agree to make a print of it was was a place known for exploitation films/porn loops). Featuring appearances from British-born philosopher/spiritual sage Alan Watts (a man the filmmaker would credit as being the only person who truly understood him during his lifetime), then-rather-elderly photographer Imogen Cunningham (who is fittingly known for her nude photography), and ‘postmodern dance’ pioneer Anna Halprin and her entire company, The Bed is a sort of absurdist micro-epic that reflects the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly of the counterculture zeitgeist as a work that reeks of misguided positivity, childish utopianism, deleterious wishful thinking, goofy dancing, and dreadful fashion senses (indeed, even completely naked, some of the subjects seem obscenely outmoded).
To the otherworldly and uplifting sounds of a musical score composed by counterculture maestro Warner Jepson (who also created the score for Steve Arnold’s surrealist celluloid oddity Luminous Procuress (1971) starring the Cockettes, as well as the hippie celluloid abortion Gold (1972) co-directed by Bill Desloge, who was also incidentally the cinematographer of The Bed), a bed magically rolls down a hillside and when it finally reaches the bottom it twirls around in circles like an excited dog. From there, an unclad Adam-like figure appears on the bed and his equally bare Eve follows. After a moment or two on the bed, Adam and Eve leap off, chase each other around the precious piece of furniture, eventually runaway like joyful children and the Greek god of the wild, Pan, appears on the bed-frame playing noisy degenerate jazz while auteur Broughton sits Indian style in his birthday suit next to a snake that slithers around in front of him. Things pick up more momentum when Anna Halprin and her decadent dance troupe encircle the bed, which a fire-crotched gentleman subsequently jumps over. To prepare the bed for carnal initiation, a dyke-like lady with grey hair makes the bed by covering it with sheets. Elderly photographer Imogen Cunningham then comes out and gently puts an infant on the bed, which is soon occupied by a topless pregnant woman. Meanwhile, two young men in suits stand in front of the bed while three young ladies in night gowns stand at the back of it. Of course, all five people eventually get under the covers together and assumedly fuck. A woman in vintage plantation garb brings a flower to her less than adoring poet boyfriend, who is too busy wordsmithing to pay her much mind. A male and female couple use the bed as an opportunity to put on and take off each other’s pajamas while a cowboy uses the classic piece of furniture to put his boats on. A heavily dressed fat woman loses both her sleep and bed after discovering an unsavory pervert hiding under her mattress. Indeed, while the fat woman seeks sanctuary in a tree, the goofy pervert basks in the glory of his newly stolen mattress. A seemingly frigid young blonde sporting dorky old spinster clothing consumes her misspent time by prosaically knitting in bed, but as soon as she sees a The Wild One-esque leather-clad rebel biker on a motorcycle, she strips off all her clothes like a seasoned groupie and jumps on the lucky fellow’s bike and rides away with him. Indeed, director Broughton may have been a hyper homo, but he certainly had the utmost respect for loose and lecherous ‘liberated’ women.
Meanwhile, a negress with a micro-afro admires a daddy longlegs spider crawling on her fingers and a woman abandons her sister by jumping on a black stallion and riding away. A naked firecrotched fellow gets a pleasant surprise when an unclad succubus with rainbow-colored legs and torso crawls out of a tree and climbs into his bed to carnally service him. Another fellow also gets a nice surprise when a salamander crawls out of his mouth and turns into a stunning young woman. In a scene of mirthful sacrilege, a disrobed babe holds a crucifix between her tits and a Holy Bible over her beaver. In a hysterically edited homo montage, two unclad gay lovers are featured contorted in a variety of aesthetically displeasing positions where they are occasionally joined by an equally bare lady friend. In unquestionably the most retrograde scene featured in the entire film, a swarthy bearded hippie smokes a blunt while his East Asian girlfriend chomps on a cookie. Naturally, the hippie passes the grass, as he gets the munchies and wants a bite of his oriental babe’s cookie. After a lighthearted scene of two elderly Jews playing cards, a woman in the shape of a horse is chased by an elderly cowboy in his PJs, but when the horsey woman surprises the old John Wayne wannabee by jumping on his back and riding him, the old fart runs away like a cowardly cowgirl. In arguably the most odious yet comical scene of the film, a grotesquely chubby Guido dork of the pale yet swarthy sort furiously takes off a girl’s socks, begins fondling and licking her feet, and then even attempts to fuck said feet. In a scene that I am sure any ostensible ‘African Queen’ could admire, a disrobed overweight middle-aged negress smoking a cigarette flapper-style basks in her glory as a white male slave in a fancy suit washes her big black Mammy-esque mammary glands. Indubitably, scenes like these prove that Mr. Broughton was proud to play the white cultural cuckold, thus proving that he was certainly ahead of his time in more than just aesthetic ways.
Ancient photographer Imogen Cunningham eventually floats back into the film and joins a middle-aged grey-haired ‘queen’ holding an antique baby doll in bed, but not before kissing the seemingly frigid fellow on the head. Alan Watts dressed as a doctor gives an elderly man his last rites and before the old fart kicks the bucket, he covers his own head with the sheet on the bed. In a scenario that probably inspired some horrendous exploitation flick like Lee Frost's The Thing with Two Heads (1972), a two-headed half-white-female/half-black-male—a sort of hermaphrodite ying/yang from multicultural hippie hell—kisses itself. Towards the end of the film, a large line of moronically dressed hippies wait in line to be the next to get into bed, which is soon covered with a dozen or so frail stark-naked white hippie lemming bodies. When old man Pan reappears with his dreaded sax, Adam and Eve wander back to bed after their day of play and auteur Broughton seems to pray to the snake, as if paying tribute to the devil. In the end, the bed leaves and goes back whence it once came.
Indubitably, The Bed will probably make more sense to the viewer when considering auteur James Broughton’s quote, “All the world's a bed, and men and women merely dreamers,” but of course some dreams are greater than others and the hippie dream proved to be a delusional nightmare with very few positive contributions to society aside from a film as curious and largely unintentionally entertaining as this. In the documentary Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton (2013), belated underground ‘lo-fi’ auteur George Kuchar (Hold Me While I’m Naked, The Mongreloid) seems somewhat reluctant to praise Broughton’s film and reveals that it was hated by his avant-garde comrades in New York City, remarking, “It had a very ‘California’ feel to it. Beds outside, oak trees, you know, and grassy hills…people hugging one another. I think it’s much despised a lot on the east coast. They consider it ridiculous. It was always happy. Bouncing, you know what I mean? It was like upbeat and bouncy, and any kind of humping was sort of…it wasn’t antiseptic, it was neither, it was California in the sunshine.” Indeed, in many ways, The Bed is a motion picture stereotype that is more effective than any satire or parody could ever be in mocking the ‘positively positive positivity’ and mindless wantonness-worshipping of the hippies and their allies. Luckily, the film features enough intentional humor in it to not seem like a totally bad beatnik joke (indeed, Broughton may have had a lot of eccentric arcane ideas, but he also had a sense of humor). It was not until a couple years later with his Jungian hermetic fable Dreamwood (1972) that Broughton was able to create something more sensible out of the themes, ideas, and aesthetics he introduced with The Bed, which is more or less a piece of silly embryonic filmic foreplay for the later longer work, albeit with luxury animated furniture. Indeed, maybe it is due to my steady diet of horror films as a child or my innate and perennial disgust for anything and everything relating to hippies and their bogus weltanschauung, but I will always be more of a Death Bed than The Bed kind of guy. Indeed, while beds are used for great fun things like fucking, sleeping, and reproducing, they are also unwittingly used for spreading terminal STDs like AIDS and for bidding one's time while rotting away from glorious terminal illnesses like cancer. As his later films readily demonstrate, Broughton, like the ‘summer of love’ zeitgeist he latched onto, lived in a fantasy world of his own making, but rather unfortunate realities like gay cancer later put a change to that, thus making The Bed seem like a naive joke nowadays, but one cannot deny its aesthetic allure.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 6:02 PM
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