Thursday, October 6, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Edward D. Wood Jr.

This is the latest in my monthly series called Getting Acquainted. In this series I see three films per month. What films? Films of a cinematic "luminary" -- the definition of that is quite open-ended -- who has so far been unfamiliar to me. For the extent to which that definition is open-ended, please read on ...

Last month I cheated on my Getting Acquainted rules, though I didn't mean to -- I watched my third Laurence Olivier movie six days after the month of August had ended.

This month I cheated in a slightly different way -- a way that would only be noticeable to me if I didn't bring it up here: I watched the films out of chronological order. When I first started this series, I thought it would be useful to see these artists' movies in the actual order they were released, to note progressions in their aesthetic over the course of their careers. (Considering this month's "artist," the word aesthetic is making me giggle.) So I'd been structuring my viewings that way.

However, when it came time to see the films of Edward D. Wood Jr., I was so excited to get to Plan 9 From Outer Space that I failed to consider whether the third Wood movie I wanted to see -- which was more or less undecided -- would come before or after Plan 9. As it turned out, it came before. But I still watched it.

And there, now I've spent way too many words on a bit of uninteresting business you care nothing about.

What you do care about, I presume to assume, is the man, the myth, the legend, Edward D. Wood Jr. Until this month I actually thought the man was commonly referred to as Ed Wood, since that was the name of the Tim Burton film I saw some 15 years ago. But the full name, middle initial and suffix was how he was credited, and I guess how most people refer to him. Then again, sometimes he was also credited with the pseudonym Daniel Davis, as we shall see in a moment.

I actually kind of wanted to watch Tim Burton's Ed Wood again before writing this post, but come on -- I've had a busy couple weeks and I've got a lot of movie-watching priorities.

What is there to say about this man that hasn't already been said? I'm not sure, but I guess we'll find out when I start talking about him.

Glen or Glenda (1953, Edward D. Wood Jr.). Watched: Thursday, September 15th

Question mark in title optional, I guess -- it appears in some promotional materials for the film, but never actually appears on screen.

What does appear on screen is a semi-autobiographical account of Wood's own experiences with the desire to be transgendered. Wood stars under the pseudonym Daniel Davis, playing a man named Glen who wanted to become a woman named Glenda. (Actually, in real life, Wood only wanted to dress like a woman -- in fact, he was heterosexual and was dating one of the stars of this movie, Dolores Fuller.) Count me as one of those who, when I first heard about this movie, couldn't believe that something so taboo would have actually been permitted to appear in a mainstream film back in 1953.

Of course, the answer is that there's nothing at all mainstream about Glen or Glenda, except for the fact that it features horror icon Bela Lugosi in one of his final few roles. (You know, late in his career when he was drug-addicted and pathetic.) In fact, I might just as well have been getting acquainted with Lugosi this month, because he appears in each of the Wood films I watched in September.

So yeah, this movie is weird of course. But it doesn't mean to be weird, which is why it's so weird. (Does that make sense?) What I found about Wood through the course of watching these movies is that when he's weird, he's only weird by accident -- he desired to be a mainstream filmmaker who made pretty straightforward genre films, and it was only his lack of talent/resources that give the movies the eccentric qualities we love. Glen or Glenda is a little different because the subject matter is not mainstream, but Wood clearly wanted to make a legitimate film that legitimately examined a social phenomenon that was not yet safe to talk about (and really, still makes people incredibly uncomfortable today, if the reactions to Chaz Bono's appearance on Dancing With the Stars are any indication.)

What's weird is how he goes about it. Glen or Glenda has parts that almost seem like an educational film on the transgendered mind, taking case studies of transgendered individuals and presenting them to the viewer as a means of increasing awareness/understanding of men who want to be women and women who want to be men. You know, with the same tone as those movies you saw in science class if you lived in the 1950s. These seem to me the most interesting parts of the film.

However, then he also incorporates horror elements, seemingly at random. Lugosi's role is to be a narrator, spouting cryptic wisdom about the human mind, but otherwise serving almost no function. He continually quotes that poem about what little boys are made of, in sinister tones: "Snips and snails and puppy dog tails." Then there are the dreams that haunt Wood's Glen as he tries to figure out whether to reveal to his fiancee that he's a cross dresser. Zombie-like creatures come at him, and there's also a bunch of stock footage of flappers from the 1920s. Or so I recall. (That's the great thing about Wood's films -- they come at you like dreamy fragments, and you're not really sure if you recall the details correctly.)

Speaking of stock footage, some of the most hilarious Wood incorporates is an extended sequence of stock World War II footage that feels like it lasts almost five minutes. This is included entirely for the purpose of discussing a would-be sex changer who was a war hero. The amount of footage used shows Wood's peculiar inability to understand balance. You could understand maybe 15-20 seconds of war footage, just to establish the fact that this man went off to war. But five minutes of it? It was like Wood said "This is great! Let's include all of it!"

And he probably did.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958, Edward D. Wood Jr.). Watched: Thursday, September 22nd

The supposed worst movie of all time is, indeed, very bad. What was worst about it is that I actually found it pretty boring.

I figured to at least get some loud guffaws out of this film, but there were not that many. I'm sure my split viewing under less-than-ideal circumstances had something to do with me not getting the full "Plan 9 experience," but let's just say I don't think that this is the kind of movie I will watch again merely for a campy good time. It was both bad and boring, though like Glen and Glenda, there's kind of something adorable about it, because you know how hard Wood was trying.

The most obvious funny thing about it is the terrible special effects. One of the big jokes about bad movies involving aliens is how clearly you can see the string that's used to suspend the flying saucer in the shot, but this is the only time I can remember seeing such a string -- I guess I don't watch enough bad movies about aliens from the 40s and 50s.

The next most funny thing is the terrible aliens. In other words, they're not aliens at all. They're exactly like humans in every way, shape and form, except that they come from outer space. I'm sure this has been done dozens of times before, but again, I haven't seen that many bad sci-fi movies from this era. I'm used to the Star Trek model, where aliens may be humanoids (and may speak English as well), but at least they have funny ears or gills in their neck or are the color green. Here, the aliens are just humans, and the only way they talk funny is they say things like "What do you think will be the next obstacle the Earth people will put in our way?"

The next most funny thing is the dialogue. It's atrocious. Instead of giving you lots of quotes, I'll just invite you to go to the quotations page on IMDB for Plan 9. Hilarious.

The next most thing is the use of archival footage, which in this movie extends to archival footage of Bela Lugosi. Lugosi was already dead when this movie was made, but Wood wove in some Dracula footage from the cutting room floor, then got a stand-in to play Lugosi as Dracula, who always has his cape over his eyes so you can't tell it's not Lugosi. Good times. There's also more stock footage from wars, from the army trying to track down the aliens. This is intercut with a man with binoculars standing against what looks like a gray tarp.

The next most funny thing is the plot. The plot is about aliens resurrecting the dead in order to stop mankind from destroying the universe. One more quote to illustrate the idiocy of the aliens' rationale behind the plan: "Take a can of your gasoline. Say this can of gasoline is the sun. Now, you spread a thin line of it to a ball, representing the earth. Now, the gasoline represents the sunlight, the sun particles. Here we saturate the ball with the gasoline, the sunlight. Then we put a flame to the ball. The flame will speedily travel around the earth, back along the line of gasoline to the can, or the sun itself. It will explode this source and spread to every place that gasoline, our sunlight, touches. Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, you explode the universe. Explode the sunlight here and a chain reaction will occur direct to the sun itself and to all the planets that sunlight touches, to every planet in the universe. This is why you must be stopped. This is why any means must be used to stop you. In a friendly manner or as (it seems) you want it."

The next most funny thing is that at the end, the narrator challenges us: "Can you prove that it didn't happen?"

Yet this movie is still not really that fun, despite everything that's funny about it. Too bad.

Bride of the Monster (1955, Edward D. Wood Jr.). Watched: Monday, September 26th

The reason I was interested in watching Bride of the Monster is that it's sort of thought of as Wood's best movie. It obeys genre conventions more closely than his other films, and the plot is relatively straightforward. Yet it is still stupendously awful.

The plot basically involves a mad scientist played by Lugosi trying to use nuclear power to create an army of super soldiers. He lives in a castle protected by a hulking manservant (Tor Johnson, who also appears as a zombie in Plan 9) and a giant octopus that lives in the swamps and woods outside. (Predictably, there is stock footage of a real octopus used now and again.) After a number of local townspeople disappear or are found dead, their deaths are blamed on the octopus, known only as "the monster," whose existence is only a rumor. A female newspaper reporter is drawn into the woods to ferret out the story, and she's captured by the manservant. Her detective boyfriend follows after her in time to show up for the climax, where he narrowly prevents the unholy marriage in the title -- how this relates to an octopus, super soldiers or nuclear holocaust is uncertain. However, the castle does explode into a mushroom cloud, quite hilariously, at the end -- leaving the survivors, who are probably less than a half-mile away, completely unharmed.

Bride of the Monster is ridiculous, but at least it's ridiculous within certain boundaries. Here again the special effects are terrible, most notably, the legs of the octopus, which flail around listlessly in what is supposed to be a death grip on its victims. At least Lugosi is actually alive for this one, though. As an actual character rather than just a narrator, I expected him to look more frail and helpless than he did, especially since this was supposed to be part of his late-career loss of faculties.

I'm sure there is more, plenty more, I could write about Bride of the Monster. But I've got to be honest with you: This is about my fourth or fifth sitting trying to finish this piece (been a busy week), and I just want to get it up on the web.

Up next: October.

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