Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I'm Ed Wood and You're Not

Ever since Ed Wood's re-emergence into the public consciousness in the early '80s, thanks to the Medved Brothers' 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, in which they declared Wood to be the worst director of all time, people have been quick to describe a bad movie as being "like an Ed Wood film."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While you can certainly apply the adjectives "low-budget," ramshackle," "nonsensical" and "ridiculous" to the auteur's oeuvre, lumping merely incompetent films into an "Ed Wood genre" is not only unfair, it's also inaccurate. Wood's films are a genre unto themselves. Granted, they're all made on shoestring budgets, populated by horrendous actors, chock full of stock footage and mismatched shots, but what elevates them above merely "bad" status is that they also inhabit a bizarre universe of their own, with mad scenarios driven by the passions of the exuberant filmmaker himself. And they're not boring.

In the 1950s, Wood wrote and directed a group of memorably strange films that displayed his own peculiar worldview. His first, Glen or Glenda (1953) was a plea for tolerance of transvestism, when such things weren't even thought of in the American zeitgeist. Poverty row producer George Weiss wanted a film about sexual reassignment surgery, to cash in on the then-shocking news story of Christine Jorgensen's sex change, and Wood instead delivered a surreal tale about cross-dresser who just can't help himself. There is a brief, non-explicit surgery scene, presumably to placate the producer, but the rest is a jaw-dropping, film noir biography of Wood himself—a "normal" heterosexual man who enjoys wearing soft angora.

Anxious to enter into a traditional marriage with a woman who will accept his proclivities, he is tortured by strange nightmares, probed by judgmental psychiatrists and watched over by a mysterious narrator—played by Bela Lugosi—who interjects dramatically-intoned non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the plot of the film itself. I wonder what the drive-in crowd made of this one as it unspooled on the screen.

After Glenda, Wood attempted to make more traditional, commercial narratives in the sci-fi and exploitation genres, but he just wasn't wired that way. Plan 9 from Outer Space, cited by many critics as the worst film ever made, is actually his masterpiece, a treasure trove of strangeness whose pleasurable impact perseveres even as other cheapjack sci-fi films of the '50s have faded into oblivion. The difference is that the other "bad" movies were made by money-hungry producers anxious to cash in on the packed drive-in theatres (which were then experiencing the zenith of their popularity) while Wood's films, as misguided as they may have been, came from the heart.

The plot of Plan 9 is an indictment of modern society (yes, I just said that), bringing aliens to earth to stop scientists from blowing up the sun. Why they'd want to do that, no one knows, but it doesn't stop Wood from pulling his familiar cast of stock players—Lugosi, Tor Johnson, the Amazing Criswell—into the story to add to the nearly-incomprehensible fun. By now everyone is familiar with the favorite moments of Plan 9—Lugosi's obvious double stalking the graveyard; the shower curtain in the airplane cockpit; the wobbly cardboard tombstones; Johnson's difficulty extricating his bulky frame from the open grave—and it's these moments that make it so beloved, along with the copious amounts of Wood's babblespeak dialogue.

It's gratifying to watch for those wonderful Wood touches in all of his films. In The Sinister Urge, a shocking expose of the smut film racket, he's cast the most terrifying female lead you'll ever see (the amazing Jean Fontaine)—and it's not even a horror film! There's also a folded-up movie screen in the corner of a detective's office and an endless sequence of a car backing out of a parking space, exiting the lot, making a safe right hand turn and slo-o-o-w-w-ly driving past the camera down the street. Hell, I guess in Woodworld if you're going to go to the trouble of photographing a car driving, you might as well use it all! Wood himself cameos as a young thug who starts a seemingly unprovoked brawl at a malt shop.

In Bride of the Monster, there's a scene in which a file clerk has a pencil stuck in her hair in forward-facing shots but not in the reverses. Rubber snakes hang motionless in trees. There are lots of close-ups of Lugosi's rheumy eyes and arthritic hands as he "hypnotizes" his victims. And, of course, in the film's climactic scene, he sits in a cold, shallow pond, being "killed" by an obviously phony octopus. Yet even with all this insanity, Wood writes a monologue for the old trouper that's actually rather touching...and Lugosi delivers it with relish.

By the 1960s Wood was unable to find financing for his projects and he began writing pornographic novels—anything to get by. Still, the monster nudie Orgy of the Dead, which he wrote but didn't direct, is made memorable by his out-there screenplay. Try to follow this plot: Criswell plays the Emperor of the Dead, who has a Morticia-like assistant (Fawn Silver), and two henchmen, the wolfman and the mummy. They've come back from the dead (for one night only!) to sit in a graveyard and watch breasty strippers perform their acts. I'm not kidding. They snatch a young couple who've just been involved in the calmest car accident you've ever seen, tie them to posts and force them to watch as well. While plotting a way to escape the monsters' clutches, the couple bickers. One of their more memorable exchanges:

BOB: They wouldn't dare bury us in the same grave...

SHIRLEY: I hope not. I hate you.

BOB: That quick, huh?

SHIRLEY: Yes, that quick.

It's so packed with these choice Wood-isms that you find yourself fast-forwarding through the absurd striptease sequences to enjoy the hilarious wraparounds. Here's Criswell's intro, which is almost identical to his Plan 9 intro—except in color!

Of course we have Tim Burton to thank for the semi-biographical film Ed Wood, which blends fact with idealized fiction. Wisely ending the story before the agony of the last years of Wood's life, Burton (along with a dynamic Johnny Depp) preserves the memory of a truly one-of-a-kind filmmaker at his most enthusiastic and energetic. I think it's a fitting memorial. It was also a zillion times more expensive than all of Wood's films put together!

I hope I've made my point. Truly "bad" films are defined by unoriginality, dullness and a craven contempt for their audience on the part of the filmmakers. Today, mind-numbing drek like the Hostel series and the remakes of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street fall into that category—cynical heaps of commercialism that make even the cheapest piece of vintage drive-in flotsam look like a classic in comparison. I know I'd certainly rather see Bride of the Monster again—with or without MST3K enhancement—than to suffer through Rob Zombie's Halloween II even once.

I'm certainly not saying that Wood's films need to be viewed in solemn silence or celebrated as examples of extraordinary works of art—but in a way they are. After all, here was a man who didn't let lack a lack of talent or budget stop him from doing what he wanted to do make movies. Wood died just a few years before his films were rediscovered and celebrated. I wonder what he would have thought of that ironic turn of events? Would he have embraced his unlikely cult status...or would he have been offended? I think he would have been pleased.

So invite some friends over, order some pizza, put on Plan 9 and have a good old-fashioned riff-fest. I'm sure that, wherever he is now, Ed Wood will be smiling down on you.

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

If Ed Wood were alive today, I think he might star in his own un-reality series for Bravo - and it would be a hit!


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