On this day in 1924, the idiosyncratic filmmaker Ed Wood was born. There is much to like in his work. I have been a fan for a very long time. But his enduring appeal to me is not because of his work. It is because the man has been so badly mocked. And wrongly.
It all started in 1980, when the Medved brothers wrote, The Golden Turkey Awards. It awarded Ed Wood the title of “Worst Director of All Time” and his film Plan 9 from Outer Space, “Worst Film of All Time.” And since two know-nothings had a good time mocking films made under difficult circumstances by people with few resources, scores of less creative know-nothings have followed along since. That’s not to say that the Medved’s are very creative. It does not take a lot of talent to adopt a dismissive tone and mock films.
The truth is that I don’t even know what it means to say that someone is the “worst director.” I doubt that Wood would have made films that were any worse than those made by Michael Bay, if he had had the hundreds of times as much money (adjusted for inflation) Bay has had to produce his. But what people seem to mean when they mock “bad” films are technical mistakes. I understand that I’m not a “details guy,” but that’s a pretty sad way to look at a film. I am far more offended by technically competent films that lack any real creativity. You know, like a Michael Bay film.
None of this is to say that Ed Wood made good films. But he did something that is much more difficult: he made amazing films. Glen or Glenda is almost indescribable. The closest I can come is to liken it to Eraserhead — a supremely idiosyncratic masterpiece that no sane person ever wants to sit through twice. But Wood’s film is brave while Lynch’s film, as is typical of his whole career, ultimately has nothing to say — all style and no substance. (That doesn’t mean I dislike David Lynch’s work; I admire much of it a great deal.) Wood has something to say and he says it with quite a lot of style:
Wood’s second film showed that even with a small budget, he could make a perfectly decent B movie, Jail Bait. Of course, people dismiss it as bad because it was directed by “the worst director of all time.” Next came Bride of the Monster. I think it is one of Wood’s weakest films with a particularly bad script. But like most of Wood’s films, it mostly wants for second unit work — a common problem with low budget films. And it does have this amazing scene with Bela Lugosi:
What is hardest to understand is the hatred and mockery of Plan 9 from Outer Space. It is a remarkable film in its anti-Cold War subversion. People tend to miss that the film is a tragedy. The aliens come to earth to stop humans before they develop a bomb that if used will destroy the entire universe. The aliens, quite rightly, think that humans are too immature to possess such power. In fact, in the most powerful scene in the film, the nominal hero, Jeff Trent (love that name), totally misunderstands the message of the aliens, “So what if we built this solonite bomb? We’d be an even stronger nation than now!”
But unlike in The Day the Earth Stood Still, there is no hopeful ending. Wood has the aliens destroyed, and the humans going forward blissfully like drunken teenagers driving along a winding mountain road. But most viewers would rather just focus on the fact that Tom Mason doesn’t make a very good Lugosi stand-in. This is true, but not very interesting.
The rest of Wood’s films were more standard like Jail Bait. They had their moments, however. Then apparently, he got into some soft-core porn directing. Eventually, he simply became a writer with all the fame and money that usually goes with it. He wrote scores of pulp novels. And he wrote at a furious pace. No one ever accused him of great care. Still, you have to admire anyone who could dash off a novel in a weekend. And Wood could and did.
Happy birthday Ed Wood!