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.

**********

50 comments:

Fox said...

Excellent lead-in post, Greg.

I'm glad you brought up MST3K and, thus, the defninition of a "bad movie". Thinking about that makes me curious about that intangible "thing" that made Ed Wood's movies still entertainig even though they were poorly made. We can list numerous movies of this kind.

Is it because someone like Ed Wood still put 100% of his heart & soul into his films regardless of the poor dialogue or camera work or etc.? Was it because he, himself, was unaware of his flaws and thus didn't feel any fear or pressure to edit himself?

Could be many things. I think it's the reason why the new "so-bad-it's-good" sensation The Room is so popular, selling out theaters that it plays in. It's undeniably poorly made, but it's fun to watch.

Then we have someone John Waters, who I would put it a different category than Wood. I don't know enough about Wood, but I would guess he wasn't so aware of his limited skills. John Waters, on the other hand, was aware, and embraced the idea of making low-budget, low-skilled trash films. To me, his movies work too, but it comes from a different mind set.

And I think Tim Burton nails that mind set in his tribute/love poem to Wood, and to movie love overall. I guess that's it. "Movie love". Wood had it, and it comes out in his efforts no matter the blemishes.

Greg said...

I don't know what it is but I'm inclined to believe it has something to do with skill. That is, the movies of Wood's that don't get talked about much are the ones that move slowly and tend to bore.

With Plan 9 the action moves at a clipped pace and that has a lot to do with it. The one scene in that movie almost never replayed or quoted by fans is the scene in the general's office as the Colonel listens to the tape. It's slow, long-winded and the dialogue between the two seems, well, normal. That gives evidence that it was Wood's dialogue above all else that made his movies memorable.

I haven't seen The Room but I hope someone does a piece on it for this blogathon. That someone could be you Fox. I'd like to read it.

John Waters is hit or miss with me. Because it is intentional it doesn't entertain/amuse me half the time because the real entertainment of these things comes in their unintentionality. Nevertheless, I think Waters is a good filmmaker but falls back on camp more often than needed.

Peter Bernard said...

Eddy Wood was a GREAT writer. I've co-written with a guy who won an Emmy for comedy writing on Letterman, yet I can't ape Eddy's style. He was a complete original. I defy anyone who thinks he's a bad writer to try to write a page in his style. You can't because I doubt anyone can. I also used to work as a ghost writer, I pride myself in being able to write in anyone's style. I can't write in Eddy's. The reason his films look bad is because it took alot of money to make films look good back then. These days any 16 year old with an HD camera can do things Eddy could only dream of. He did the best he could with the resources he had available, and we're still watching and discussing his films so many years later. I thank you for remembering Eddy but ask that you please remember him with a bit of respect.
Your pal,
Peter

bill r. said...

Modern man is a hard-working human...

I'd forgotten about that line. It really is pretty amazing, isn't it?

Wood's dialogue has always been the best part of his films for me, as well, often paired with the actor or actress's delivery of it. So many of the lines are just bewildering to me. They're like puzzles, where the goal is to figure out what it God's name Wood thought he was trying to say.

Have any of you guys seen The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra? It's a spoof/homage to the kinds of films Wood made, and, while I may be in the minority, I enjoy it quite a bit. It's hit or miss, but at it's best the dialogue is a pretty flawless recreation of the sort of thing you're talking about in this post, Greg.

Oh, and I hope my post for today will go up at around 1:00, it may be pushed to this evening, depending on my computer access during lunch.

bill r. said...

Peter, I think Greg showed Wood a lot of respect with this post. And I'm pretty sure everybody who's going to take part in this blogathon respect the guy. But let's not go throwing around the word "great" when we don't really mean it.

Greg said...

I thank you for remembering Eddy but ask that you please remember him with a bit of respect.

Peter, this whole blogathon is about respect. The piece I wrote was about how he isn't the worst director of all time. But Peter, with all due respect, just because something cannot be aped does not mean it's good. Since we're calling up expertise I'll call up my own, acting. I've done theatre for years (decades) as well as much voice-over work. I've seen many an actor pretend to give a bad performance for comical effect and yet none of them do it quite like Dolores Fuller.

So does that mean because Dolores Fuller can't be aped that she's really a great actress? Not by any definition I know of. She's a poor actress. God love her but she just couldn't act.

Everyone taking part in this loves Ed Wood. That's why I wanted to clear up at the beginning that I find his films entertaining on their own , without a bunch of snarky remarks. But Peter, Ed Wood was not a great writer. I'm sorry but he wasn't and more importantly - in fact, of the utmost importance - I don't want him to be. That's one of his charms. His cluelessness with the written word, his tin ear for dialogue. By calling his writing great you are removing one of the wonderful things that makes Ed so unique, his bizarre style of writing.

Of course, I'd love to have you write a piece about his writing for this blogathon if you like. I'd love to read it. And thanks very much for stopping by and raising that issue, I appreciate it.

Greg said...

Bill, I haven't seen that no. In fact, I wasn't even aware of it until now. I'll have to check it out.

I just watched Glen or Glenda again recently and find that film really something. I'll write it up this week but it's quite an amazing piece of work. The lines, the delivery, the cuts to Lugosi, the alternating narrations from the doctor and the scientist (Lugosi) - it all adds up to a captivating absurdist surrealist film, all quite by accident on Wood's part. It may not be as highly regarded as Plan 9 but it's a fascinating piece of work nonetheless.

Rick Olson said...

Great beginning, Greg. I'll be chiming in later in the week. I personally love "Glen or Glenda," but not quite as much as "Plan 9."

Good response to Bernard, btw.

Greg said...

Rick I look forward to your entry. I wasn't sure if you were going to be around or not. And remember, to everyone, it can be any filmmaker, not just Ed Wood.

And Peter loves Ed Wood as much as we all do but we simply differ on Ed's writing. I do agree with Peter that it is unique to a fault, I just don't think that makes it great but I am sincere when I say to Peter that I'd love to read a more thorough defense of Ed Wood the writer on his blog if he wants to contribute.

Peter Bernard said...

You should ask Nick Zedd to write something on this subject. He turned me onto Eddy Wood when I was 17 or 18.

Didn't Dolores Fuller write, "Rock-A-Hula Baby" for Elvis? These were very talented people.

Eddy Wood was a great independent filmmaker, he inspired generations to make movies no matter the difficulty. People forget how hard it used to be before computers to do special effects and editing. Even titles cost money, now any kid can do it. Wood was as big an inspiration as Forry Ackerman.

Greg said...

Peter, yes Dolores was a very successful songwriter. Ed should have definitely used her for music in his films.

And I think Ed's film look okay, not bad. Sure the sets aren't elaborate but like I said, he wasn't bad with the camera. And he did, and does, inspire filmmakers all the time because no matter the quality Ed's sincerity shown through on every film. If you're looking for someone to personify a can-do spirit against all odds, it's Ed Wood.

bill r. said...

Look...I admire Wood. I really do. I'm on board with this. But let's not forget to call a spade a spade. He was simply not very good. He was passionate, and -- most importantly -- he did the frickin' work, but his movies aren't good for any of the traditional reasons.

And I don't buy the budget excuse, either. Carnival of Souls, Blast of Silence, The Sadist and a host of other films of the same general time period were made for nothing, as well, and they're very clearly much better films.

Greg said...

And I don't buy the budget excuse, either. Carnival of Souls, Blast of Silence, The Sadist and a host of other films of the same general time period were made for nothing, as well, and they're very clearly much better films.

I was just about to get into that next. Right now I'm at home putting together scenes from Night of the Ghouls, funnier in many ways than Plan 9 and I'm watching the actors walk into things, quite obviously flub lines and an old couple supposedly driving through a storm while you can see the stationary wall of the set outside the car window. It's rich in its badness and every one of those mistakes could have been corrected by a simple retake or just a little more care. And isn't that why most of us love Ed Wood. Because he didn't fix it.

Ed was not a great independent filmmaker but he had sincerity. I am going to give Peter the benefit of the doubt that when he says "great" he is mixing it up with "unique", "bizarre", "outrageous" and so on. But to actually believe Wood was a filmmaker of the highest order would simply call into question one's ability to accurately judge quality.

Peter Bernard said...

When the Ramones first came around, most of the buzz on them outside of the punk community in NYC was about how "they can't play their instruments." I first listened to them BECAUSE I was told that and I was curious what that would sound like. There's a video documentary called, "Lifestyles of the Ramones" in which a record exec (Seymour Stein? maybe) says that in the early days, he'd send the Ramones on tour. Then whatever little town they played in, about a month later he'd start getting demo tapes from brand new bands that started up in each town the Ramones passed through. In such a way, the Ramones literally created punk rock-- not just the music, but the culture and the eventual entertainment industry it's become in watered-down forms.

There are some artists who not only inspire by their ideas, attitudes and energies, but also by MAKING IT LOOK DECEPTIVELY EASY. You see them and say, "I COULD DO IT BETTER THAN THAT!!" and the next thing you know, they've transformed your entire life, these people you once mocked. By then, if you're lucky, you're getting mocked and therefore inspiring a new generation yourself.

Edward D. Wood, Jr. and the aforementioned John Waters were both big influences on the independent cinema that followed them. Warhol also, his early "films" were precursors to a lot of low budget cable and public access that's around now. They each have their strengths. Warhol's stuff would look beautiful but could often be boring. Eddy's and Waters' films (early ones I mean) were never lit or shot as well as Warhol's but were rarely boring. Carnival of Souls is a well-shot Twilight Zone episode stretched to feature length-- it's nice but it's not in the class of an Ed Wood film. It's brilliant but it's not genius. It's Eddy Murphy, it's not Richard Pryor. I'm trying to make a subtle distinction without insulting that old movie, which I like. I don't know the other two, I'm sure they're great too. You can't judge all things the same way. What is better-- a Johnny Carson monologue or an episode of "Streets of San Francisco?" Comparing Eddy Wood's movies to more standard films made with much larger budgets (Wood never had a budget like Carnival of Souls to work with) is like comparing Orson Welles on Lucy with Davy Jones on the Brady Bunch. They're not similar enough to compare. Would you fault Orson for not singing in a British accent? Would you dis Davy for not doing magic tricks?

Eddy Wood is great because of his impact. We're still talking about him. We're not talking about most of the directors of his time that were more respected back then. We're not having a Carnival of Souls Blog-A-Thon.

I'm not trying to argue, just make a point. I think our host sees what I'm trying to say.

Again, Nick Zedd can say it better than I can and you should invite him here.

Malcolm said...

As long as we have Sofia Coppola, Ed Wood will never be the worst director in history.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Great blog. I've never really taken the time to look into his work, I guess that I should.

Peter Bernard said...

"But to actually believe Wood was a filmmaker of the highest order would simply call into question one's ability to accurately judge quality."

OK that's a really distasteful and bourgeois, philistine-like comment. Shame on you. I withdraw my earlier assertion that you got it.

Yeah on second thought don't invite Nick here. You'd probably all want to congratulate yourselves for finding the "mistakes" in his films rather than listening to what he had to say.

Greg said...

Peter, Nick can contribute (and so can you). I see what you're saying but do you see what we're saying?

Carnival of Souls is a well-shot Twilight Zone episode stretched to feature length-- it's nice but it's not in the class of an Ed Wood film.

I would have to disagree with that wholeheartedly. Carnival of Souls is miles above any Ed Wood film. Peter, many films have been made on budgets lower than Wood's movies. Stranger than Paradise comes to mind and that's a great one. You do (and I'm asking honestly) understand there is a difference in quality between Plan 9 and Stranger than Paradise right?

My fellow film bloggers and I are well versed in the films of yesteryear (that's ALL this blog is concerned with) so I know a thing or two about them and I can tell you hundreds were made with low budgets that surpass Plan 9. I believe by stressing Wood as an actual great filmmaker you are missing out on the beauty of Ed Wood's uniqueness.

Greg said...

OK that's a really distasteful and bourgeois, philistine-like comment. Shame on you.

Peter, I see that comment as neither. If someone were to assert that Peter Noone of Herman and the Hermits were as great a songwriter as John Lennon, that "I'm Henry VIII I am" was on par with "Working Class Hero" I believe that would call into question one's ability to accurately judge the quality of the songs in question. I mean you no offense. I'm sorry this all rubbed you the wrong way. There's a richness to be found in Wood's films if you can accept them for what they are and not try to raise them beyond that. That's all we're saying.

Peter Bernard said...

... also, you ARE aware that Night of the Ghouls is an intentional comedy, right? Wood was spoofing himself by then.

Greg said...

As long as we have Sofia Coppola, Ed Wood will never be the worst director in history...

I've never seen one of her films, no, not even Lost in Translation, so I couldn't say.

bill r. said...

...comparing Orson Welles on Lucy with Davy Jones on the Brady Bunch. They're not similar enough to compare. Would you fault Orson for not singing in a British accent? Would you dis Davy for not doing magic tricks?...

I'm sorry, Peter, but that just doesn't make any sense. You're right that Davy Jones and Orson Welles have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, but these other filmmakers have plenty to do with Ed Wood: they were working with small budgets, and they were independent, and they were making genre films.

I don't agree with the Carnival of Souls/Twilight Zone comparison, but even if I did, I wouldn't think it was much of a criticism of Hervey's film, and besides that, what would that make Plan 9 from Outer Space? Saying Carnival... is similar to The Twilight Zone doesn't automatically bolster your claim that Plan 9... is a great film.

And according to Wikipedia -- grain of salt and all that, but still -- Plan 9's budget was $60,000, while Carnival... was made for around $33,000.

We're not having a Carnival of Souls Blog-A-Thon...

Ah, but we are! This is about Wood's SPIRIT! Herck Hervey fits right in.

Greg said...

... also, you ARE aware that Night of the Ghouls is an intentional comedy, right? Wood was spoofing himself by then...

If so he did a fine job and Peter, my apologies for getting off on the wrong foot. I did notice the Wanted poster with Ed's picture on it and found that very intentionally funny.

Greg said...

Kid in the front row, thanks! You should definitely check out some of his work, it's worth it.

Arbogast said...

We're not having a Carnival of Souls Blog-A-Thon.

Yet.

Marilyn said...

Bill - I've seen Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Intentionally bad is often not as funny.

I still haven't picked my blogathon film, but I'm narrowing it down. Good start, Greg.

Greg said...

Arbo, you probably recall but I mentioned Carnival of Souls in the announcement post on this.

I look forward to your eventual Carnival of Souls blogathon.

Greg said...

Marilyn, thanks! You've probably seen dozens of low-budget films at festivals that were superb that you could do, unless you want to go the bad fifties sci-fi route. Either way I look forward to it.

FreudianVacation said...

I would classify Ed Wood under the label of "compulsively watchable".

The majority of people won't feel bad after seeing his early films unlike say the movies of Coleman Francis, which could make you angry and sad when they aren't boring you to death.

He saw himself as the best of both worlds. Someone who could make an energetic sugar high sort of sci-fi thriller while hammering social messaging into people's faces as well.

Aside from some of the great points you mentioned on dialogue, I think it was really this ambition to make all things for all people that did him in. Had he, like you said, hooked up with a decent screenwriter who could have honed and channeled his energy he could have made at least passable if not quite good movies.

But if people are to be believed, a lot of his narcissism and hubris always took over and the very notion that his ideas were fallible seemed to be something he took far too personally. No director goes anywhere without good collaborators and producers and Wood seemed to intentionally shut those sort of people out because they would challenge his perspective on his talent.

Aside from goofiness there's a lot of spite in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 stemming from a Director who refused to believe he wasn't one of the great minds for all aspects of filmmaking. The results are silly and full of life, but also more than a little stubborn.

bill r. said...

Bill - I've seen Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Intentionally bad is often not as funny...

I agree, but I think Larry Blamire nailed the dialogue, more often than not. But, as I said, I think I'm in the minority.

Greg said...

No director goes anywhere without good collaborators and producers and Wood seemed to intentionally shut those sort of people out because they would challenge his perspective on his talent.

I have heard that too. In Tim Burton's movie you consistently hear Wood talking about how only two people act, write, produce and direct: Wood and Orson Welles. It's done sweetly and with great comic effect in the movie but the idea of that line contains a great deal of vanity. Wood didn't see the difference between doing all things on a film, like Chaplin or Welles or Woody Allen, and doing them well. He didn't understand that quality mattered more than output. I've often felt he didn't understand what made Welles great, he just figured because he acted, wrote and directed then that was what made him great, not the quality of his output itself.

Flickhead said...

Last night I finally caught up with Roland Emmerich's 10,000 B.C., proof positive that Ed Wood is clearly not the worst director of all time.

Greg said...

Flickhead, you're either very brave or very reckless. I'm hoping if I run fast enough 10,000 BC will never catch up with me.

Arbogast said...

I think it's almost impossible to talk about Ed Wood's career without broaching the subject of his alcoholism. No, he wasn't in his heyday (if Ed Wood can be said to have a heyday) a stumble bum but he was a functioning alcoholic whose letters to home to his parents (in which he actually admits he's drinking in the early morning hours) were borderline grandiose. And I say that not to diminish Wood's accomplishments, just to put them in context. I think the booze put him in a place where all things were possible and he seems to have used that core (for want of a better word) to urge himself forward. And he made a lot of movies! On his own! But I think it was the booze that muddied the barriers between social commentary and personal fetish. Wood was like a walking lenticular cartoon, constantly shifting from This Thing to That Thing, and whether he was trying to be funny or playing it dead serious the effect was pretty much the same.

Greg said...

I've never read the letters to his parents but that's an interesting take on him.

Watching Night of the Ghouls today I found that when he is clearly going for comedy that it's so telegraphed and blunt that it's not funny. Then people start clearly reading from cue cards and still flub their lines and it is funny. And no, those parts were not intentional. It is clear to anyone who knows Wood or film in general that he is not intending things like ivy falling in the face of a ghost in the woods but is intending the flat "jokes" and the result is exactly as it is in Plan 9 or Glenda.

I think he clearly lost track of what he was trying to do on any given project almost immediately after the project began.

Richard Harland Smith said...

Adding very little to what's already been said, I just wanted to point out that I wrote about Plan 9 a couple of years ago for TCM, at which time I declared the film as an unsung milestone in American independent filmmaking and I wasn't being ironic. I had first put these thoughts across the table in a letter to the editors of The Village Voice back when Tim Burton's Ed Wood came out and they had the good sense to print it. Maybe I can come up with something original for the blog-a-thon.

Greg said...

Well I look forward to a Morlocks piece on this or any Ed Wood film. I agree it's not Ed's worst, which would fall to his sixties output in my opinion but this line from your piece raised an eyebrow:

Could respected A-list filmmakers such as Nora Ephron, Neil LaBute or even Tim Burton, if denied the studio perks on which they rely to facilitate the creative process, produce a work as enduring as Plan 9 from Outer Space, which is still being discussed and enjoyed fifty years after it was made?

Well, yes I would say, if their sincere efforts (not intentional camp, but sincere efforts) were bumbling to a certain extent then it would be remembered. That's a part of why Plan 9 is remembered.

I think John Huston's Red Badge of Courage even after being hacked to bits in the editing room is a masterwork of cinema but it's the rare bird that knows it but doesn't know The Ten Commandments. Now, while I'm not saying The Ten Commandments is awful it is fairly campy and imminently quotable, especially if you employ the proper Heston accent, and it's shown on tv every year and has tons of merchandising that has surrounded it over the years. By your reckoning that makes it a better film than Red Badge of Courage and there I would have to disagree. Many a great work has been forgotten while the mediocre thrives.

But I do agree wholeheartedly that Wood was an admirable and unstoppable force of Indie filmmaking. I think Wood was damn near extraordinary in his ability to keep going, to keep pushing forward and never give up. It's that spirit we're celebrating with this blogathon and one that obviously drove Plan 9 forward. I'd love to read a more thorough defense on Morlocks if you're so inclined. And tell Medusa to get off her butt and write one too.

Ryan Kelly said...

What a fantastic, and serious analysis of Ed Wood (rare) and why his reputation is what it is. I love how you say it's "not only wrong, but confused" to call Wood the worst director of all time--- as you say, he may not have been the world's most competent film maker, but to label him as the worst film maker of all time is really kicking a guy when he's down. There are far worthier targets.

Richard Harland Smith said...

this line from your piece raised an eyebrow

Well, you're leaning on that triple dog dare of a line a little hard. Yes, they could... but we all know they won't.

Richard Harland Smith said...

And vis a vis The Red Badge of Courage versus The Ten Commandments, I think you're looking through the wrong end of the telescope at least as far as what I was trying to get across. I don't mean that the movies that endure are necessarily the best (or movies that are forgotten are inferior), but rather pointing that far more important and "good" films will come and go while people are still talking about Plan 9... a truism that actually skirts all conversations about quality. I think people love to hate The Ten Commandments; I'd go so far as to bet that people actually love Plan 9 From Outer Space.

And anyone who doesn't is stupid, stupid!

Greg said...

Ryan, there are far worthier targets out there, like Alan Parker who certainly has Wood beat on technical competence and even has films that have been praised and received awards but there's a faux-seriousness, a self-important smugness with his work I can't stand and I'd rather watch a Wood film any day of the week...

which leads me right into...

Greg said...

I think people love to hate The Ten Commandments; I'd go so far as to bet that people actually love Plan 9 From Outer Space...

Richard, I overstated my case and you didn't blink. You were supposed to fucking blink! Goddamn you. And you're right concerning the truism about Plan 9 still carrying the conversation because frankly there are much worse and much better films out there and Plan 9 has a place in peoples' hearts like no other low budget film.

Samuel Wilson said...

Actually, I find myself loving Plan Nine and Ten Commandments for the same reason. The films have that same sort of half-accidental word jazz going on. You could say that De Mille's writers should have known better, but who was going to overrule C.B. if that's how he wanted it to sound? The films may be at polar extremes at funding, but the directors operated from the same position of wild privilege with unique results.

Arbogast said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FreudianVacation said...

Also doubling back a bit. I think people are underestimating Wood's contribution to pop culture and compensating it by overestimating his cinematic contributions.

He had the Zeigeist of his era down and really had a good inkling of people's interest in the atomic age, teen hot rod culture, pornography, monster movies etc.

Largely because his life and career are more than the 3 big movies followed by a career in pornography. He worked TV commercials in the 50's, some pilots for Westerns which weren't picked up, and also aviation short features in the early 1960's arond the time of the NASA boom. And this doesn't count his experiences on the fringes of society at a carnival freakshow.

His life was really wrapped up in the quintessential cultural aspects of post WWII life. But his tragedy seemed to be that he was always writing and imagining films from the unhinged perspective from someone for whom 1930's pulp and sleeze culture had never ended. Sometimes I feel like he imagined that the way people related to each other ended with Buck Rodgers shorts, magicians, and Universal Monster movies. He could never adapt to newer film technologies and narrative techniques and thus wrote them off.

While his dialogue, editing, and casting are unbelievable they were also hoplessly old fashioned even in there day. Leading to of course his biggest contribution: The Z Picture which takes all of the shallow elements of 2nd reel B Movies and screwing them up in such a pathological way to make them go beyond the realm of tepidly bad to the sphere of thinly fictionalized insanity.

While I'm no pop psychologist, I think the greater part of Wood's appeal does lie with Orson Wells and the disturbing spin he put on the latter's success story. It asks us to imagine the scenario in which someone who is gripping emotional stability by a thread is given the tools to make a movie.

Wells was someone who encapsulated the whole of pre-WWII culture in Citizen Kane (like Wood after the war) and, more importantly, was given complete freedom to make a film without having to prove himself beforehand in Hollywood. Famously him and the Mercury theater were given free reign of the studio in a situation that could have backfired easily for RKO. Wood's tale asks us to imagine the same scenario done by an unstable individual who's goal seemed to be the public unveiling of his own fetishes, giddiness, and nightmares.

Erich Kuersten said...

Great post, Greg. Wood's not the worst, he's the "best worst" - he's every monster kid's first glimpse of Brehctian post-modernism, and Depp as Wood was right when he said "movies are about suspension of disbelief." or something. At least, it used to be that way for kids, used to bad animation and bizarre local TV hosts... Wood was "one of us! one of us!" a freak, an underdog. Wood's movies were bad but never BORING, which is the key.

Also, he was the first to make a film that implied the government knew about UFOs but was keeping it from the public to avoid panic.

And Freudian, Welles DID bankrupt RKO after all... Citizen Kane was great but then he went to Brazil and spent all their money trying to make three movies at once.

As an artist and filmmaker, Ed Wood and Orson are the twin beacons of American weirdness of that era, total reckless nutjobs who broke the molds. If you can't make something good, make it either great or so bad it's better than good. As we used to say in the 1980s: "Dude, go for distance!"

Greg said...

Samuel, I agree and I love The Ten Commandments. Every year when it's on ABC I watch at least some of it. I can't stop myself. I think Wood and DeMille were more similar than I ever considered before.

Greg said...

FreudianVacation, that's an excellent take on Wood, his time and his mental state. In fact, why not just copy and paste it and put it up as a post on your blog as a contribution to the blogathon?

Leading to of course his biggest contribution: The Z Picture which takes all of the shallow elements of 2nd reel B Movies and screwing them up in such a pathological way to make them go beyond the realm of tepidly bad to the sphere of thinly fictionalized insanity.

You could do the whole piece on that for instance. I love that description of his contribution. It sums it up perfectly.

Greg said...

Ed Wood and Orson are the twin beacons of American weirdness of that era.

Absolutely. I've always said if Orson and Ed could have worked together with Ed as the taskmaster and Orson as the visionary they could have really done something special. Ed knew how to work on a film and not stop so he could keep Orson in line every time he wanted to start something new before finishing the last one and Orson knew how to, you know, make a movie so he could do that part and Ed could watch and learn.

Greg said...

Oh yeah, and then they'd go out after each days shoot and Ed would have gimlets while Orson downed a bottle of single malt scotch.