Moron Movies (1985) — Does That Aggravate Ya? Damn Right It Does!
Hey hey, it’s Anticipating the Registry, a new Patreon-sponsored feature where I sit down once a month and babble about movies I think oughta be in the National Film Registry! Less formal than Registering, no less thoughtful! This month, we’re taking it a lil’ easy and looking at a short film compilation — a very weird, goofy short film compilation that’s more in common with Vine culture than anything in its day. It’s Len Cella’s Moron Movies from 1985! Onward!
My proposed nominee for the month comes to us with fine credentials from any outsider’s perspective. For years prior to his national breakthrough, Broomall, Pennsylvania native Len Cella took time between work as a house painter making home movies. A common practice for many in the 70s and 80s, but Len didn’t document local events or notable milestones in his private life; Len fancied himself a comedian and so pursued a one-man career in shortform filmmaking. Little bits ’n’ bobs of ideas universally presented with a silent title card giving the viewer some insight into the joke, followed by rough 8mm camera footage of Len acting out the punchline, usually with ordinary objects from around the house or strange half-baked contraptions. Some frequent favorite topics of his include unusual solutions to mundane problems (puncture a toothpaste tube a few times and you can squeeze it from any end; tape spoon and pen together with a little rod and you can stir your coffee while you write), conventional skit comedy (anyone down for attending ass class to learn the difference between a good ass and a bad ass?), Borscht belt dad jokes with a visual component (incompetent weathermen, ways to tell you’re a moron, breaking diets in over the top manners, etc etc), a man coated in rubber nipple warts, the misadventures of Hangover Harry, effective means of aggravating, and sometimes pure oddities Len simply found funny. The annoying toy he drowns in shaving cream, turds as a deterrent against rapists, advice on how best to miss pouring your drink by a country mile, jabs against the boringness of living in Broomall. Often without sound, occasionally without class, always self-evident he thought everything herein funny enough to go through the hassle of filming with a consumer-grade camera already outdated by the time of his biggest success.
Len Cella’s Moron Movies are structurally a precursor to modern internet humor, lightning-fire DIY skits from a person who had an idea and executed it roughly as possible, and the compilations he produced are effective equivalents to TikTok best of vids*. Course, there wasn’t any element of trend chasing or clout grubbing in Len’s case — he only ever thought his work was good for a kick and wanted to share it with folks in the hopes they’d think the same. While local exhibition in Broomall initially didn’t go anywhere, further efforts caught the eye of local journalists, whose pieces inspired bigger papers to feature Len as a Philadelphia-adjacent local oddity, which in turn landed him a spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where his shorts would become a regular fixture whenever Johnny needed something real out there mid-show. The attention proved sufficient for Len to rent out his own private Philly theatre for showcasing Moron Movies and in time release a compilation on VHS, the same compilation I bring forward for nomination today. Profits and interest petered out by decade’s end and Len slipped back into obscurity, largely only known by those who discovered second-hand copies of his work in rental stores or friends’ extensive tape collections, but he’s kept making art and further iterations of the MM concepts since, still with the same ol’ “fuck what anyone else thinks, I like doing it and it makes me laugh” attitude seen on the compilation tape. He is, admittedly, a precursor rather than an influencer, someone who predicted today’s online humor scene largely because the technological barrier which kept so many inclined to similar creation away from such idle moviemaking wasn’t any bother to his mind. You’ll hardly find a content creator active now who’ll name any mid-2000s video stars as inspirations, much less dig all the way back to Len’s day.
(*Should be noted, I’m far from the first to make this observation, and certainly not the most eloquent about it.)
I do not, however, bring forth Len Cella and his Moron Movies as prospective entrants into the National Film Registry because Vine and TikTok have made his chosen artform THE filmic expression of the common folk in modern day. It’s a fine reasoning and probably the one I’d present the Library of Congress on an official nomination form, but we’re in the paid segment of my article library, where I’m free to get a lil’ more personal about my thoughts and feelings than baseline. Len Cella is a director/star/writer/editor/all-round Movie Person whose work I believe deserves preservation in the NFR because Len Cella is something of an idol of mine.
Some context: while Vine was certainly an entrenched and popular Thing by the time I discovered Len in college, my online experiences existed wholly apart from that side of the internet. A sophomore at the time, I was hanging out with some friends in their dorm, tooling around on the laptop and watching gonzo crap on the r/ObscureMedia subreddit. Towards the end of the night, following some entertaining eye-poppers like local preachers’ old ads for Halloween Hell Houses and Malice in Wonderland, we stumbled on this here post linking an upload of Simon Mercer’s 2011 20-minute documentary on Cella, King Dong. Titled after an old short featuring Len running around with a painted-pink bombshell strapped to his crotch, I found the thing instantly fascinating, this old gentleman rambling on about his lifetime of creative work, explaining the inspirations behind a few favorite shorts and the title Moron Movies, showing off his modern accommodations of an apartment packed to the brim with oddball props and various pursuits in other artistic mediums. Lots of masks, drawings depicting cartoon circumcision, plaster-lined furniture of his own craft, a photo or two of himself as God. All manner of Moron Movies present as intermission, from the old favorites on his VHS compilation to new shorts on modern equipment. Throughout, he’s totally and unrelentingly positive about the very things I at the time considered universally worth despairing over: thinking on aging as a wonderful thing so long as you keep challenging yourself and opening your mind to new possibilities, rejecting the concept of mainstream success as a false burden against doing what YOU like, finding it no big deal if his art only ever appeals to him and him alone. There’s no sense his time in the spotlight changed him, no evidence he got bitter or brittle, only a man who found what he loved, did it for decades, and is still doing it to his satisfaction just as he did when Carson picked him for late night.
And just… the quavering, slightly too fast rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the end, intercut with footage of news and late night broadcasts promoting his work from all those years back. To sing, and sing because it makes you happy is, I think, the purest act of self-expression available to a body. To sing for the same reasons without any concern for the imperfections or mistakes, doubly so. Following my rewatch of Moron Movies and King Dong the other night, I looked up Len’s YouTube channel after several years away, and to my delight his “Songs Gone Wrong” series sees him continuing exactly this trend, covering all manner of tunes with a pitchy synth and unconventional delivery and editing which isn’t nearly quite there, and I love all of it. His cover of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” even includes an additional verse and chorus twist I’m gonna integrate into any future open mic performances. The simple, profound beauty in someone who’s lived a life like Len in events and approach booming his way through, “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but, ‘Hallelujah!’” is close to a summation of my ideal meaning of life as I’ve ever found.
I’ve returned to Len multiple times over the years, watching King Dong whenever I’m down about my own lacking prospects with this series and other pursuits. Its letterboxd page has basically become a hub for whenever I really go off my head and start threatening to nuke all my work unless I get some sign someone cares right now, because through the addleheadedness of a nasty mental break I cannot resist the absurdity of making such an announcement through a diary entry on an obscure work called King Dong. There’s no pride in this fact, just an observational anecdote, for its a behavior what flies in the face of why I find Len inspirational and think the Library of Congress ought induct his work. Is his not the quintessential American way? To work towards a cause you believe in for the plain fact it brings you joy, even without success, even without support, even when it’s too odd for all save the intrepid and lucky seekers who trip over oddities and cherish them for their intrinsic values? To live a full life filled with making and singing and playing, to be as creative and energetic in your eighties as you were in your thirties? To flip off dejection and be as you are wholly uncompromised, enriching your little plot of land to the best of your ability?
One should hope, with Len’s chosen medium now practiced by millions upon millions the globe over, some of his post-fame approach to life will emerge amongst their number just as his hobby has done. It would be so right and good if those countless masses chasing YouTube or twitter or TikTok fame and found they simply will not achieve the views necessary to become the next superstar can pick themselves up and continue making something of what they’ve got. Don’t matter none if only fifteen people click on your passion project and even fewer are interested in sticking around long term. Len’s been his deadpan, sardonic, goofy-ass self for bang-on fifty years absent any meaningful attention for the majority of his time as a creative, and yet look at him go. The Moron Movies difference is in not giving up, in making your own happiness, in filming yourself banging trashcan lids together with your feet or gnawing on an entire roast chicken because that idea you had five minutes ago made you snicker SO much on its own terms. Whatever life we’ve to live after the coming fight to protect our eroding rights, I hope Len Cella can shine as one of the guiding beacons on how to pursue our happiness and be healthier, better, weirder artists long into our twilight years. God bless this man, alongside fellow upper east coast weirdos John Waters and Lloyd Kaufman. Maybe I’ll nominated The Toxic Crusader to the Registry at some point too!
That’s it for this week! Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and be sure to check out the Patreon, where subscribers at the five dollar level get an article on Fleischer/Famous Studios’ run of Superman cartoons a month early!
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