Subversive Filmmaker Ed Wood

Ed WoodOn 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!

6 thoughts on “Subversive Filmmaker Ed Wood

  1. Roger Corman is pretty well respected. But then, a lot of his films made money, so he was able to keep making them and hiring new people who were grateful for the learning opportunities. If Wood’s films had made money, and he’d had the opportunity to break new people into filmmaking, maybe he’d get less mockery. People like William Castle, too, and a lot of drive-in, low-budget filmmakers. I might have to side with the MST3K guys on how weird and twisted Bert Gordon’s movies are, though.

    I’ve never seen a Bay film, but I’ve seen big-budget movies that are sprawling awful incoherent messes. These days, the bigger the budget, the more incoherent the movie, generally. “Guardians Of The Galaxy” got great reviews, I saw it at a drive-in, and after 45 minutes kids were running amok wanting to play with each other. Anything rather than watch a movie that made absolutely no sense, no matter how cool the effects. (Which is about how most of the Marvel moves strike me.)

    • There are low-budget filmmakers who mad great films like Samuel Fuller. And certainly for idiosyncratic filmmakers Russ Meyer is one of the very best. My point is never that Ed Wood is great or even good. I simply think that people should respect him more than they do.

      • Oh, yeah, I got it. And Infidel’s quotes are pretty hilariously bad (hi there, Infidel!) I’m just theorizing that Wood is picked on because his movies were not all that successful. Corman had some pretty interesting ones (the ones with Vincent Price that I’ve seen, I liked) but some god-awful turdburgers as well; he’s not mocked because of how he mentored the likes of Scorsese and Demme. Given how loyal Wood was to his cadre of performers it’s not unreasonable to assume that if his films had made money he might have mentored young talent like Corman is credited for.

        One of my favorite movie land ironies is that Corman’s super-lazy “Little Shop Of Horrors” (which is actually pretty funny in parts, and has Nicholson in it) inspired the musical. (One of my favorite musicals, not for the story, but for the songs.) The musical writers were then hired by Disney to revitalize their sinking animation franchise, and succeeded with watered-down versions of the wit they employed in “Little Shop.” It’s quite possible Disney’s film division would be a subsidiary of some other studio now if Ashman/Mencken didn’t make “Little Mermaid” and the others such big hits. Buying Pixar came later, after those movies made moolah.

        Of course, Ashman came from the gay theater community, which is what made his subversive take on 60’s foo-wop in “Little Shop” so great. So Disney owes, it could be argued, its resurgence (and cash to buy Pixar and produce vomitastic crud like “Cars 2) to one o’ them gays. The company actually, as far as I gather, not too evil about this, and caught some flak back in the day for being open to gay visitors at Disneyland (while they paid their animators peanuts.)

        Still, kinda funny. Disney, a logo that today epitomizes safe, strictly non-gay, to my mind unbelievably creepy sexualization of pre-teens (it’s not that pre-teens aren’t sexual; it’s cashing in on this that gives me the ook factor) and for decades cashed in on being nostalgically right wing . . . may have been rescued from fiscal ruin by gay theater musical songsters. Inspired by a horrible Corman movie with Nicholson playing a masochist. Kinda funny.

        • Steve Reeves had nice things to say about working for Wood. As I recall, he said that Wood was very nice and understanding. It took Reeves 17 takes to get a shaving scene right in Jail Bait.

          Corman is, of course, a legend — for the reasons you mentioned and more. He was the master of working with next to nothing. I remember listening to his director’s commentary on The Pit and the Pendulum, and most of what he talked about was how he was reusing stuff from House of Usher. He not only had a good eye for talent, but was clearly good at getting people to work with him. To me, there was no greater “get” than Richard Matheson.

          Interesting story about Disney. It could be turned into a great conspiracy theory where Walt Disney never died and he is really Roger Corman. Also, there is a painting of Corman in his attic where he has a really creepy mustache.

  2. It’s perfectly possible for cheaply-produced films to be good, even popular. The British are masters at this. And certainly expensive ones can be terrible.

    But Plan 9 isn’t an example of this. Itprobably isn’t the worst film ever made, but it sticks in people’s minds because it’s bad in ways that are funny. It’s the ridiculous writing that stays with you.

    “How can they continue to refuse our existence when they see their own dead marching upon them, brought about by our advancement in such things?”

    “As you are walking home, someone will pass you in the night — and you will never know, for they will be from outer space!”

    Et cetera. See for example the explanation of how “solaronite” could blow up the sun and this would somehow destroy the whole universe.

    Really, it wouldn’t have taken a big budget to come up with better writing than that.

    I’m not prepared to overlook incompetence in film-making just because the intended message is good. An incompetent “message” film can even become a basis for mockery of the cause it serves — see Reefer Madness. Probably the only reason this didn’t happen with Plan 9 is that it’s so confused that it’s hard to tell what message, if any, it intends.

    I don’t think anyone hates this movie. But it is pretty ridiculous, and yes, incompetence is sometimes funny and people are going to mock that.

    • I think you are trivializing my argument. Of course Wood’s films could have been much better. But Wood was creative. His films are always watchable, which is something you can’t say about Harold Warren’s “Manos”: The Hands of Fate. Otherwise, I don’t really disagree in any particular way. This article is’t “Ed Wood: Great Director.” It is “Ed Wood: Interesting Director.”

      Reefer Madness is a special example that deserves great respect. It was originally shot by a Church as a message film. Louis Gasnier bought it, added some women in underwear and took in on the road. He pretty much invented “independent filmmaking.” His purpose was exactly the opposite of “message” — it was all “grindhouse.”

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