In Tim Burton's recent big-screen biography of Ed Wood, actor Johnny Depp re-created key scenes from several of that Grade Z movie director's masterworks from the 1950s: In the climactic flying-saucer attack that highlights Plan 9 From Outer Space, flaming paper plates dangling from fishing poles strafe a papier-mch model of the Hollywood hills. In Bride of the Monster, an aging Bela Lugosi wrestles with a limp rubber octopus. And in the truly bizarre Glen or Glenda?--a transvestite epic in which fully a quarter of the running time is cobbled together from stock footage of buffalo stampedes, freeway traffic, bazooka blasts and the like--Depp-as-Wood even appears as his own star, prowling a downtown shopping district in full drag.
While many audience members stared in slack-jawed disbelief, at least one Valley viewer saw more than a little of himself in the incredible-but-true biopic.
Much like cross-dressing schlockmeister Wood, Phoenix videomaker Paul Wilson revels in using stock footage, deliriously cheesy special effects and mind-boggling plot lines to flesh out his peculiar artistic visions. Going Ed Wood one better, Wilson even uses a potted philodendron as a stand-in for his own favorite "leading lady"--himself--while he focuses his camera and sets the lights.
Armed with only basic video equipment--his eight-year-old GE camcorder is held together with duct tape--and an imagination that won't quit, the prolific, 30-year-old artist has managed to turn out an astounding zilch-budget oeuvre--some 300 short videos over the last ten years. In the process, he's created a demented 1950s universe in which a housewife entertains an extraterrestrial while her husband is at work, a libidinous GI Joe in a Wile E. Coyote mask menaces Barbie and Ken on a dream date, and a blas homeowner casually straightens a crooked picture after his neighbor's house is leveled by an atomic bomb.
According to the relatively few fans fortunate enough to have seen his work, Wilson may well be the most talented moviemaker to emerge from the Valley since Scottsdale teenager Steven Spielberg first peered through the viewfinder of his Super 8 back in the Sixties.
"Where does he come up with this stuff?" marvels Kim Moody, director of Alwun House, the downtown art space that's hosted several Wilson screenings over the years. "It's amazing how he's encapsulated the Fifties the way he has. Watch this guy--something's going to click."
Valley Art Theatre owner Krista Griffin shares that enthusiasm. Explaining that Wilson copped first place in an amateur filmmakers' festival held at her Tempe cinema last summer, she says, "Paul Wilson's videos are so far ahead of anything anyone else in town is doing, there really was no comparison. He's going to make it." Griffin hopes to present "An Evening With Paul Wilson" at the Mill Avenue moviehouse sometime next month.
Although familiar to those who frequent the Valley's more avant-garde galleries, the artist's video work remains largely unknown to the general public. A freelance scenic artist by trade, Wilson is probably best remembered for last year's controversial "stalker" art show in which he displayed homoerotic pencil drawings and cutouts documenting his obsession with actor Parker Stevenson ("Idol Threat?", September 22, 1993). Although Wilson insisted that show was a harmless spoof of celebrity obsession, the bizarre exhibition was sufficiently disturbing to attract national press.
A year later, Wilson has all but forgotten Stevenson as he embraces his latest passions. Today, the artist is gung-ho on creating his own revisionist view of the American Fifties, a period he perceives as the apex of world culture. "My interest is rooted purely in the aesthetics of the era," says Wilson, who was not born until 1963. Explaining that his impression of the decade has been largely molded by old television commercials, outdated catalogues, back issues of women's magazines and thrift-store safaris, he adds, "Everything seemed so, well, courteous back then."
Readily admitting that he's probably looking at the decade through rose-colored harlequin glasses ("Living with all that conservatism, poor health care and no VCRs would not be pleasant"), Wilson nevertheless wishes he could hop the next way-back machine. Since he can't, he's doing the next best thing via his videos, as well as a series of elaborate, cut-and-paste collages crowded with multiple images of himself in various guises. "This is how badly I want to have experienced this--and this is the only way I can do it," says Wilson, who uses the collages to "interact" with himself. Looking like large blowups of drug-store snapshots, the vivid, pop-artish creations allow Wilson to portray all the members in a family gathering, everyone present at a Tupperware party and, in one of his most remarkable images, more than a dozen different guests whooping it up at a cocktail soiree. "I would so love to be able to step back in time and just go to one of these parties," explains Wilson. "This is the only way I can be every character and really experience the whole thing. Then, when I'm done shooting for the day and I'm washing all this stuff off my face, it's like, 'Wow, what a great party!' And these pictures are like the evidence--it's 1959 and I was there."
Although many of Wilson's earlier videos originated as class projects while he attended Arizona State University in the Eighties, some of his most fascinating tapes are among the 30-odd one-man videos he's produced, directed, written, photographed and starred in during the past year. One such solo vehicle is his recent What I Did to "Psycho," an absurdist retelling parody of the Hitchcock thriller. By inventively editing in clips from the original film, Wilson appears to "co-star" opposite Anthony Perkins, playing roles created by Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and John Gavin.
"There's an advantage to doing spoofs of old films," explains Wilson. "If I have to make a copy to give to a gallery for a show, it doesn't matter if I lose a generation [of detail], because it's supposed to look like a bad film in the first place. If it gets worse, it actually gets better.
"Commercials and trailers are the best," continues Wilson, who has spoofed every genre from driver-ed films (Red Pavement) to civil defense drills (Family Atomic Preparedness). "They're versatile, you've got a lot of cuts, and I can pack a lot of visuals into very little time. Anything longer than a few minutes and you run the risk of losing your audience. As an artist, I think that's one of the worst things you can do--boring people."
He's currently shooting Valley of the Pauls, a long-range work-in-progress inspired by the coming-attractions trailer for 1967's Valley of the Dolls. To date, he's spent a year reenacting snippets from the show-biz shocker, a labor-intensive project that eventually will require him to impersonate Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Barbara Parkins, Susan Hayward and Martin Milner.
The cast parties might not be much, but Wilson isn't complaining.
"When you're in college, you have access to a lot of people," explains the cut-rate auteur. "Now I don't. But when I use other people, it's very difficult to coordinate schedules. Doing it this way, I have absolute control."
It also makes life a lot easier for the costumer (Wilson, again), who spends a lot of time these days cruising secondhand stores for vintage size-12 women's wear. "It kills me to pay $5.99 for a really horrible Sixties A-line dress at Family Thrift," he rues, noting that he frequently spends less than that on an entire project. "I know I'm only going to wear it once--in Valley of the Pauls. The mid-Sixties are just not my thing."
And judging from the looks of things around Chez Wilson, neither are the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.
With the exception of food, toiletries, electronics equipment and a few books, there's virtually nothing in his east Phoenix home that would look out of place in a 1959 Better Homes & Gardens layout. (Wilson recently allowed a Japanese photographer to use his retro showplace as a kitschy setting for a book of high-end erotica.) With closetfuls of props and unlimited ingenuity, Wilson has turned his abode into a residential version of the Universal Studios lot. Its artfully disguised rooms appear in virtually every video, and surrounding lawns have doubled for everything from Golden Gate Park to a nuclear wasteland.
Even so, Wilson sometimes still finds it necessary to shoot on location. That happened last fall while he was vacationing in San Francisco. Realizing that the nearby bay could double for the Malibu shore where one of his Valley of the Pauls heroines would play a crucial scene, Wilson dutifully handed his camera over to a friend, suited up in drag and hit the beach. Never mind that re-creating the sequence involved wallowing in icy surf dressed in a filmy bathrobe, all while wrangling a wayward wig and three huge prop "barbiturates" that kept floating out of camera range.
"I could really feel for Barbara Parkins and what she must have gone through," says Wilson, referring to the actress who'd sloshed through the tide in the original. "I'd wait for a nice visual-looking wave to crash over me with foam, and when it did, what happened was absolutely disgusting. The wave would carry sand into my mouth and right up my nose. But I had to do it, because I knew I'd never be able to fake an ocean back home with a hose."
Meanwhile, back at the ranch house, Wilson's twin obsessions of cross-dressing and calamity played out against a backdrop of Eisenhower-era blandness continue to fuel the artist's newer projects. In one recent photo collage--with Wilson playing all the characters, of course--an Avon Lady and a Fuller Brush Man duke it out in front of a living room full of horrified suburbanites.
Drag and disaster also steal the show in an untitled featurette that originally began life as a visual catalogue of dozens of outfits and accessories from his vast Fifties wardrobe.
Not content to merely document his frocks on videotape, the artist eventually reshaped the material to resemble a home movie covering a women's-club fashion show, circa 1958. Because the action consists almost solely of Wilson flouncing around in one fashion absurdity after another (while his own off-screen voice gushes "Lovely!", "Gorgeous!" and "Stunning!"), the ten-minute short appears at first to be nothing but an exercise in narcissistic tedium.
But its initial hypnotic banality is eventually shattered as Wilson's "models" experience a series of buffoonish runway mishaps. Twirling around to show off the petticoats beneath her skirt, a blond clotheshorse loses her balance and careens into a potted plant. Later, another mannequin trips, pulling over a fully loaded buffet table as she plunges to the floor. And in the fantastic climax, one model accidentally exposes a plastic "breast"; mortified when the fawning crowd verbally turns on her, she abruptly transmogrifies into a dome-headed space alien and wreaks havoc on the unseen luncheon guests.
What does it all mean?
Don't ask Wilson. "It's just shits and giggles," shrugs the videographer. "I'm just trying to amuse myself."
Wilson is easily amused--he once made a movie about the "tape game," a pastime he invented in which players wrap double-sided cellophane tape around their hands and vie to see who can find the most interesting debris embedded in the carpet. He's also just as easily inspired--the artist is evidently incapable of driving down the street, visiting a friend or even turning on the television without something triggering his imagination.
Simultaneously fascinated and appalled by the glut of poor grammar, misspellings and senseless punctuation he'd noticed on business signs around town, Wilson cranked out Signs of the Times, an imaginary television news segment intent on cracking down on poor signage. A concept with real potential as a recurring TV spot, it features actual phone calls to befuddled clerks at a variety of sign-challenged Valley businesses, as well as Wilson's indignant ravings as the show's host ("Whether signs are homemade or professionally painted, they usually display nothing more than the sign painter's ignorance").
Upon discovering that a friend owned a parakeet that enjoyed sticking its head into people's mouths and pecking at food particles trapped in their teeth, the artist turned on his video camera and opened wide. A Stupid Pet Trick? Not to Wilson, who turned the loopy footage into a pseudoinstructional featurette on oral hygiene.
And while his body of work is probably the most apolitical since the Beach Party series, Wilson couldn't resist "starring" Governor Fife Symington in one of his productions. Titled Chaos at the Suns Parade, the minimovie was inspired by the politico's appearance on an upstairs deck of America West Arena while officiating over a televised parade honoring the Phoenix Suns last year.
"I remember watching that on TV and thinking how dumb the governor appeared, wandering around out on that balcony with the Phoenix Suns," recalls Wilson. "But then, when some people started booing him, I thought, 'What a great vehicle for catastrophe!' Here he is on a big building with millions of people--how can this go bad?"
When Paul Wilson was done, worse than anyone could ever imagine. By cutting back and forth between televised parade footage--reshot with a jiggling camera off a TV screen while miniature debris showered in front of the lens--and some climactic scenes lifted from the 1974 disaster epic Earthquake, Wilson adroitly managed to create the impression that Symington is center stage during the destruction of the entire Valley. Heightening that illusion is Wilson's ingenious use of clips featuring a minor actor from Earthquake--a cowardly character who happens to bear a passing physical resemblance to the governor.
"In the movie, the man who looks like Symington selfishly throws everyone else aside so he can get into the elevator," says Wilson. "Then the elevator plunges down the shaft and he dies." The artist smiles beatifically. "Somehow, everything just seemed to fit together."
In the interest of equal time, it might be noted that Eddie Basha, Symington's gubernatorial rival, has also been tangentially involved in a Wilson project. Interior late-night scenes shot surreptitiously in a Bashas' supermarket--renamed "Spiff's" in the script--appear prominently in one of Wilson's most frequently screened featurettes. Titled Bake 'n Trade, the short comedy is the tale of two cheery 1950s housewives who whip up nutritionally subversive casseroles made of cockroaches and human feces.
Those gross ingredients also figure heavily in a couple of Wilson's earlier and most widely seen works. As its name suggests, Roach Clips is a semicomic collage of repellent scenarios in which cockroaches assault humanity at every turn. In one scene, a man toweling off after a shave discovers he is smearing his face with sewer-roach entrails; later, a woman wielding a three-foot cockroach runs amok in a restaurant as shrieking diners flee in horror.
Another title from Wilson's "gag-reflex" period is Ina Reams, the profile of a matronly coprophiliac who sees herself as a one-woman human-waste recycling plant. ("I'm constantly eating it--and I'm constantly producing it, as well," philosophizes Reams in midmunch. "I fancy myself as a cyclical unit in a never-ending process mode.") Although nearly unwatchable, the execrable opus proved such a hit on the local art-gallery circuit that Wilson eventually produced a predictably repulsive sequel; in the second go-around, medical problems have forced his heroine to switch to what might politely be described as a "liquid diet."
Explaining that he's gradually phasing these sophomoric crowd-pleasers out of his more recent efforts, Wilson admits, "I guess there's still a part of me that is drawn to cockroaches and all this childish stuff. Why, I don't know--I'm bothered by real cockroaches as much as anyone. But when I realized how much power cockroaches wield over people, I knew I had to celebrate and exploit that in my work."
So what if some other filmmakers discovered the same sort of things early in their own careers? For instance, years before moving into the mainstream with Hairspray and Serial Mom, director John Waters employed nearly identical scatological shock tactics in his 1970s midnight classics Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble.
But with the exception of Wilson's intentional film parodies, the video auteur maintains that any resemblance between his work and that of any other filmmaker is not only coincidental but almost miraculous.
"I'm always very interested when someone sees something in one of my tapes and assumes I was influenced by some well-known director who'd evidently done something very similar," says Wilson. "Actually, I've always been so busy with my own stuff that I've never seen or even heard of some of these motion pictures I've supposedly been influenced by. To tell the truth, I learned a lot more from watching The Carol Burnett Show on television than I ever did sitting through 'classics' like Potemkin in a college film class."
And what can we learn from the videos of Paul Wilson?
"My stuff is made solely to indulge myself, and maybe share it with a few friends," says the artist, adding that he doesn't expect to be recognized in his lifetime.
"I didn't like Ed Wood's tragic ending," he says, referring to that late director's boozy slide from near obscurity into total oblivion. "It seemed too predictable, winding up penniless and not being recognized until he was dead. That's the unfortunate trauma of a lot of artists. Da Vinci, all those people--it wasn't until years later that their stuff is worth anything. And I have a feeling that's what's going to happen to me--only I don't want it to be so squalid.
"I figure my brother or my friends will inherit all my videos, and that in the year 2099, someone will find these ancient things and restore them," Wilson theorizes. "I don't know exactly how it will happen, but I imagine way after I'm dead, somebody other than my friends will finally enjoy them." And when that time comes, Wilson says he wouldn't be at all surprised if his own life is immortalized on-screen.
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"I think it'd be very interesting to see how a director in the 21st century would handle my story," he says. "The biggest challenge would be to figure out a way to show me re-creating the Fifties within the context of a re-creation of the Nineties--it'd be like a picture within a picture within a picture. And, of course, they'd have to show me in high school being driven to the wig store by my parents because I wasn't old enough to drive--my parents figured if I was buying wigs, at least I wasn't buying drugs."
Realizing how outlandish his life's scenario must sound, Wilson laughs. "If they ever make a movie of my life, it will be like Ed Wood. Nobody's ever going to believe it."
As his immortal heroine Ina Reams might say, "No shit!