Monday, July 6, 2009

In Defense of Ed Wood

I feel it necessary to kick off this blogathon, this Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, by first and foremost defending the man whose name it bears. Not only have I seen several Ed Wood films, and recently watched some of them again, but I have come to the conclusion that to call Ed Wood the worst director of all time is not only wrong but confused as well. Watching Ed Wood's films closely in the last two weeks I have noticed the obvious, that they're not very good, and noticed this has little to do with his direction and almost everything to do with his writing. Ed Wood the director could have used a little more patience for re-shoots, a little more money and a much, much better feel for coaching actors, especially given that he worked with some truly horrible actors, but as a technician he kept the action going and wasn't awful with his choices of camera setups and movements. So why the reputation? It's all in the writing.

Edward D. Wood, Jr quite simply had no ear whatsoever for how people spoke or sounded. In fact, had Wood written the previous sentence he would have written "for how humans spoke" because he did strange things like substitute the word "human" when a person would say a line that screamed for the word "person" or "man" as in this line from Glen or Glenda:

"Doctor, I'm hoping to learn something from you, and with that knowledge maybe save some human from the fate which I have just witnessed a few days ago."

He's referring to a suicide of a transvestite. He doesn't say "save some other person" or "save another man from the fate..." No, he says "human." Nothing grammatically wrong with that of course, it's just awkward. And it turns out, that's a good way to describe Wood's dialogue most of the time: Awkward. It's as if Wood wants to sound studied, formal but that formality sounds stilted, wrong. Also, he really likes the word "human." Later lines in Glen or Glenda include, "All those cars. All going someplace. All carrying humans..." and "Modern man is a hard-working human..."

As for examples of Wood dialogue gone bad there are so many it's almost pointless to quote them here. Look up any Wood movie on IMDB, click on "Memorable Quotes" and enjoy the show. It's the best part of any Wood movie listing on IMDB, the quotes page. That's because that's where Wood's infamy comes from, his barely written word. His direction was no great shakes, but it was his writing, his god-awful painfully awkward dialogue that did him in. Nothing can redeem the dialogue of Edward D Wood Jr. Had someone else written his films they still would have been fairly low-brow, low-budget films I suspect but they wouldn't be infamous.

As for his magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space, it contains enough downright wretched special effects that most people think that's the secret to its badness but again it's the dialogue. The poorly made flying saucers are hilarious to look at and the sadly pathetic attempts at constructing a realistic cockpit set or a flying saucer interior gives one fits of belly laughter but it's the lines - "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" - that keep humans laughing long after the movie's over. The thing is with Plan 9, like most Wood movies, it requires no clever commentary to make it entertaining.

In the nineties Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a popular show on Comedy Central in which the characters ridiculed bad movies that, without constant commentary, might be unbearable to watch. Case in point: Manos, The Hands of Fate. This is probably the most famous episode of the show and if you've ever seen Manos, The Hands of Fate you know it desperately needs commentary. It's not entertaining on its own. It's not "so bad it's good." It's bad, period. In fact, It. Is. Horrendous. It is a monumentally bad movie. It is incompetent from beginning to end. It is, finally, completely, utterly and absolutely atrocious. It truly is one of the worst, if not the worst, films ever made. Plan 9 is not.

Plan 9 is entertaining even if you're not laughing at it. For one thing Dudley Manlove, as extraterrestrial Eros, actually keeps you interested with the velvety rich intonations he gives each and every line. Gregory Walcott's stoicism as Jeff Trent is right in line with most low-budget sci-fi of the era and the recycled theme is just that, recycled. Starting with The Day the Earth Stood Still science fiction has loved to warn us humans that we're becoming too destructive for our own good. Make fun of Wood all you want but he was just using the same cliche that other directors had used and gotten praise for. Plus, his added plot point of raising the dead made it horror/sci-fi and actually moved it beyond plain old cliche but he squanders this opportunity. Instead of having the aliens raise the dead en masse, which may have really been effective, he has them raise only three, a giant man who can't walk straight, a very skinny woman and an hobbling old man. Not exactly menacing.

But that was Ed. That's how he rolled. He had ideas that others ran with while he stumbled. Ideas that beat others to the punch only to have him blow it. And no matter what the idea, the dialogue was wretched, simply wretched. But his movies weren't the worst and never will be. Neil Sarver said in the comment section here recently, concerning the claim that Wood is the worst director ever, that he was pretty sure the worst director ever, whoever that may be, made films that no one could watch. Like Manos, the Hands of Fate. You can't watch that movie on it's own without running commentary, either your own or someone elses. It's garbage. Wood's movies aren't gems but they're not worthless. They have honest entertainment value on their own. Without any snark. Given a bigger budget and a screenwriter Wood might have amounted to something more but would have most likely been forgotten. I'm glad he didn't have the bigger budget or the screenwriter because now he will be remembered always. As he should. Ed Wood: NOT the worst director of all time. And a pretty good human too.

Let the blogathon begin.