James J. O'Meara
Closely Watching the Cinematic Alchemy
of Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films
Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009
“One is always considered mad, when one discovers something that others cannot grasp!” — Dr. Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) in Bride of the Monster
“He did a lot of hall and office work and was the fastest typist in the Marines.” — Kathy Wood, talking about her late husband, Ed (1992)
“A lot of people like to say [Ed Wood] wasn’t a good director. I don’t think it takes a bad director to make a movie in six days with $8,000. That takes a genius to do that. It’s more like alchemy.” — Cinema Insomnia host Mr. Lobo
Is there anything more irritating that the whole hipster “so bad it’s good” aesthetic?
While Sontag may have appropriated the idea of “camp” to provide a justification of high-brow slumming, the “so bad it’s good” mentality attempts to subvert critique altogether, “ironically” appreciating trash as trash while diverting energy and attention from the truly good.
The entry point, for movies at least, seems to have been Harry Medved’s book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (Popular Press, 1978) and its sequel, The Golden Turkey Awards: The Worst Achievements in Hollywood History (Perigree Trade, 1980) by Harry and Michael Medved.
The latter Medved, of course, eventually morphed into a Judeo-con commentator, with a special mission to the evangelicals, in which role he continues to infest the late-night Christian airwaves. How many hipsters realize that? If they do, they may ask, so what?
I say “of course” since “so bad it’s good” is a typical example — a veritable paradigm case, in fact — of Judaic culture-distortion.
One consequence of such distortion is focusing our attention on trash; another is the search for more trash to “enjoy” leads, deliberately or not, to neglect or misunderstand work of genuine value.
Indeed, some have begun to note that the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the patron saint of the “so bad it‘s good” cult, the so-called (by the Medveds) “worst director of all time”. . . aren’t that bad. Rather fun in fact. And if the culture-distorters want you to mock something, maybe we should take a closer look.
As a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Medvedite, this book had me right at the start, with this dramatic mise-en-scène:
I first encountered the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr., one sunny afternoon circa 1980, when a revival house screened Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Even with the fuzzy focus, tinny sound and catcalls of the inebriated audience, the remarkable splendor of Wood’s vision came shining through, and by ﬁlm’s end I was a bona ﬁde Wood devotee. Afterwards, the Medved Brothers, authors of a book called The Golden Turkey Awards, the ﬁrst to introduce Wood to a mainstream audience, held court in the theatre lobby, surrounded by doting fans, and pontiﬁcating on Plan 9 ’s lamentable ineptness, giving as evidence such anecdotal nonsense as hubcaps used as ﬂying saucers, a claim which anyone paying attention could instantly deny. I spoke with a smaller group in the corner of the lobby. We breathlessly discussed what we knew to be true that Wood was a daring and utterly unique outsider ﬁlm artist, a wildly creative producer of bizarre personal art, and a ﬁlmmaker of sublime stature.
Unfortunately, the condescending view posited by the Medveds and others took hold, and Wood became legend not as a film artist of note, but as a freak of nature, a literary clown, an alcoholic buffoon of fringe Hollywood, a ﬁlmmaker so awkward and unfocused that he had inadvertently created, with Plan 9 from Outer Space, “the worst ﬁlm of all time.” Discarding the patent absurdity of such a claim, Wood’s ﬁlms are in fact neither bad, nor good, they are art; astounding, bizarre ﬁlm-poems with many, many ﬂaws, and many more hypnotic charms.
If not “so bad it’s good,” then what is the continuing allure of the Ed Wood oeuvre? The danger here is to fall into the opposite extreme, and try to find some hidden, highly abstract and academic motifs, with accompanying po-mo verbiage. Craig sometimes falls into such claptrap:
Bride of the Monster . . . with its emphasis on subject and object connected via a corrupt and ill-fated “marriage” of sorts, signals a binary which will pan out in interesting ways throughout the ﬁlm, a coupling of innocence and baseness, passivity and aggression (with a nod to the master/slave dialectic of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel [1770–1831], outlined in his seminal work, Phenomenology of Spirit), and as mentioned, creation and destruction as embodied in the symbols Eros and Thanatos.
Or this example of trying to real too much into what is likely budget-imposed cheapness and alcohol-induced confusion and laziness:
The ﬁrst thing one notices is the patently artiﬁcial walls of the lab, studio ﬂats which are primitively painted to look like stonework, but are so literally illustrative they convey no realism at all, but make the entire set look not just fake, but deliberately and consciously fake, another nod by Wood to Brechtean theatre, in which audience engagement in the piece is largely predicated upon the notion that the scenario is theatre, and not a narrative analog to real life, or in other words, non-representational vs. representational theatre. (Italics original)
In fact, the shot [of the actor vainly struggling with an inanimate octopus puppet] is so stunningly false that it conveys a creepy uber-realism of its own, and is one of Bride’s greatest illusions; in true Brechtean form, it completely undermines suspension of disbelief, and thrusts the audience into a much more confrontational world of fake melodrama and unbelievable theatrical illusion.
In the immortal words of an audience member at lecture by J. L. Austin in New York, when Austin pontificated that a double negative often signifies a positive, while the inverse never occurs: “Yeah, yeah.”
At times, it’s hard to tell if the reader is being “punked” by some kind of academic satire, more Pooh Perplex than Sokal Hoax.
Crossroads [an unfinished, 23 minute Western TV pilot] thus sketches in minimalist form the treacherous journey ahead for the postwar suburban couple, along with the addressed hope for an emergent heterosexual dyad of progressive, courageous and most importantly post-phallic and post-capitalist citizen, potential architects of an emancipatory post holocaust culture.
Well, that’s gotta turn enough cranks to get an “A” anywhere in the Ivy League!
But for the most part his method is quite sound (or, also Bride’s Dr. Vornoff would say, “all right!”):
This book is not a biography of Wood the man, nor is it a history of his career as ﬁlmmaker, nor a chronicle of his prodigious literary output (volumes all waiting to be written, it would appear). It is simply a meditation on his ﬁlms, along with some thoughts as to themes, motifs and passions which recur with notable regularity.
Craig seems to be referring to the same method which I have myself employed in reviewing films here on Counter-Currents — derived from the British poet Jeremy Reed’s observation that the poet’s relation to his subject is the same fanatical obsession as the pop fan devotes to his or her “idol” — in which one focuses ones attention on repetitive viewings until … things start to appear.
And it should be noted that this meets the strictures of what I’ve called the Amis-Larkin view, that while academic discussion and analysis is welcome and can be both interesting and helpful, it must only be applied to work that first has an immediate appeal to the viewer/listener. Thus, by all means write a musicological dissertation on Louis Armstrong, but don’t hand me any guff about Charlie Parker’s ugly squawking as “something you’d appreciate if you knew enough about the theory of jazz chord progressions.”
Indeed, these two points lead to a method that almost privileges popular, or genre, works. As Craig observes:
Wood seemed to also intuit that the successful artist is one who is able to create new myths, to bypass business and history and enter the culture subconsciously, through primal collective fantasies which act as the official “stories” of the age. Popular Fiction, and Popular Cinema, the twin godheads of Popular Culture, have always been the main repository for these, and Wood . . . was able to extract and rework many cultural myths to his own design, as few others with his finite resources were able to do.
Seeing the films through Craig’s eyes, we come to realize that the famous “goofs” are not mistakes. They may be deliberate, or if truly accidental (such as the infamous wobbling cardboard “tombstone“) allowed to remain in place, carefully chosen moments of preserved serendipity, like the sudden appearance of the squawking, semi-transparent parrot in Citizen Kane, disorienting the viewer.
Take, for instance, the frequently mocked alternating of night and day shots in scenes supposedly taking place at one time.
In traditional Wood form, the scene alternates between exterior establishing shots at dusk, and studio-bound interiors shot against a pitch-black backdrop.
For Craig, this is not “incompetence” but a significant theme: Wood’s “genius [vide the title] at altering cinematic time and space” so as to create voids, limbos, etc., in which his highly symbolic dramas take place.
This assemblage of disparate characters, mulling about in a bleak, flavorless, generic setting (which Criswell has remained the viewer to consider archetypal and taking place in “your town”) is quickly becoming one of Woods’ trademark cosmic voids, a Skid Row purgatory where all of humanity must pass a various points of life, towards death.
This pasteboard limbo . . .
A coffin, which lies in one of Wood’s trademark cosmic voids, a “dead space” which illustrates Woods’ recurring purgatory.
Another famous “goof” is the use of an obvious stand-in for the by-then dead Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space. There are, Craig notes, “several fascinating instances where Wood used two, and sometimes more, actors and/or props to play the same character, with Plan 9’s ‘Ghoul Man’ the preeminent example.” These “may be in fact the human equivalent of Wood’s ‘symbolic’ effects, where one or more cheap props [the cardboard tombstone] are offered to portray what was actually intended.”
One such recurring character is/are the drunks that periodically drift in and out of the police stations (another motif), an obvious “cameo” for the director himself. Another recurring character is Kelton the Cop, who appears in all three films of Wood’s after-the-fact trilogy of Bride, Plan, and Night, played by the same actor (Paul Marco). Craig dubs him “the divine idiot,” the “Cosmic Fool,” “Wood’s miserable imp,” and the “clown-philosopher.” Alternately abused and ignored by the rest of the cast (Craig calls him “a thoroughly feminized outsider to the patriarchy”; as one detective says, “Kelton! He’s the last man I‘d want!”), Kelton is Wood’s Everyman, facing the literal truths of life and death that are Wood‘s eternal theme.
The cowardly cop’s constant terrified commentary on the proceedings succinctly the unexpressed sentiments of his community, especially regarding the ever-present fear of death.
Wood manages to disarm [his audience] by pinning his most dismal revelations to his most absurd, clownish characters, Kelton the Cop: foremost, safely distancing his audience form these dark truths.
Here we see Wood availing himself of a similar motif to the one explored by Trevor Lynch in the context of the Dark Knight films: the use of a crazy or evil character as spokesman for officially forbidden truths the audience dare not face. He will receive Criswell’s ultimate accolade in the trilogy’s finale:
“The police had only their opinion as to the true ending — it was only patrolman Kelton’s guess that could be considered the closest.”
Craig at one point refers to the hapless Kelton as “this runt,” which connects him to Jack Donovan’s archetypal runt who, physically unprepossessing, nevertheless has some valuable knowledge or skill — rune-reading, mead-making, first aid, or, perhaps, some physical comfort in an all-male environment — that allows him to be a functioning, perhaps essential, element of the male band.
In the work of Ed Wood, “muddled artist,” these combine to create a cinema which is: Unflinchingly fixated, not merely on contemplation of life and death, as is much of narrative cinema, but of that cryptic correlation between life and death, portrayed in Wood’s films as a biblical-style purgatory given visual expression via one of his many cosmic voids.
There are other motifs of interest, but for now let’s look at Craig’s method in action. Before all that guff about Brecht, Craig gives us a bravura example of this kind of close, intense reading with his account of Ed’s early film, Jailbait (1954), a delirious bit of sleazy exploitation trash that, judging from the film poster, played on the bottom of a double bill with Racket Girls, a lady wrestlers/organized crime drama that shares enough themes and actors with Wood’s other productions to lead many over the years to suspect Ed’s hand in the writing or directing.
We’ll certainly see most of Ed’s cosmic themes appear.
Opinion differs on Jailbait; for some, it shows how Ed could have, barely, survived as a B-movie studio hack, while others ascribe it to the bottom of Ed’s barrel:
Though Timothy Farrell . . . tries his best to impersonate a streetwise hoodlum, he comes across more like a pissed-off insurance adjuster. And the dreary Clancy Malone . . . Instead of unctuous, he comes off as unconscious. When dopey Dolores Fuller and the Confederate colonel-ness of silent star Herbert Rawlinson are the best things about your felony film cast, you know you’re in trouble. Jail Bait is definitely the worst movie in this set . . . [Night of the Ghouls is] all Orson Welles compared to Jail Bait‘s badness.
For Craig, things are a bit different:
Wood’s uncanny ability to radically alter an ostensibly mundane mise-en-scène is well-illustrated in Jail Bait which, for all its superﬁcial familiarity, appears to take place in some alien cosmic void, not the sunny Southern California milieu in which the story is set. This otherworldly quality greatly augments the overlay of religious symbology which haunts Jail Bait from the ﬁrst to last frame.
That “symbology” will prove to be a remarkable “overlay” of Judeo-Christian motifs on top of a re-enactment of the Egyptian myth of Osiris.
Signiﬁcantly, Jail Bait takes place over the course of several weeks, but always at night; the ﬁlm’s characters seem to be constantly sleepwalking through a murky setting of eternal darkness. Given the overt religious nature of the scenario, one might call this setting a modern incarnation of the Biblical purgatory, a metaphor for the eternal prison of a sinful, fallen culture, most speciﬁcally suggesting the ancient Hebrew notion of Hell, known as Sheol, “a dim sort of pit where all the dead gathered and became sightless, soundless, and forgotten.” This striking narrative quirk also surely echoes the aforementioned “nocturnal illumination” of the ancient Osiris ritual, making the whole of Jail Bait a form of celluloid “Night of All Souls.”
What about the “wildly inappropriate music score” that others lazily mock?
This strange and beautiful music was composed by Hoyt Kurtain (aka Hoyt S. Curtin, soon to become the proliﬁc composer for Hanna-Barbera animation studios) for an earlier ﬁlm, Mesa of Lost Women (1953), for the same producers. The producers of Jail Bait merely lifted this earlier score and added it, rather haphazardly, to Wood’s gritty crime thriller. The music consists of ﬂamenco guitar and piano riffs, in vaguely free-form jazz cues which, although hauntingly beautiful, evoke no excitement or dramatic tension whatsoever. The mournful, almost avant-garde music emphasizes the alien texture of the ﬁlm, and makes the most dramatic and tense scenes seem dreamy and unreal, in effect a modern incarnation of the “melancholy chants” used in the Osiris death ritual.
Jail Bait’s opening titles roll as a Nash police cruiser prowls a busy Alhambra, California, street at night, while dreamy jazz music plays, setting the stage not for a gripping crime melodrama, but a weird spiritual tale in some modern purgatory.
The characters, too, carry a heavy “symbological” import:
Don’s sister is remarkably set up as his “Isis”; he tellingly refers to her as “Sis” (as in Isis), and never calls her by her actual name. Her existence in the scenario is novel, as any number of other B-level crime thrillers of the era would have, as the protagonist’s female counterpart, a lover or girlfriend or wife, some sort of romantic interest. As Don has only his sister to love and worry over him, there is no romantic tension whatsoever in the piece. In fact, Sis does act the role of Don’s “wife” in many ways, from fretting and cajoling and offering advice and solace, to harboring and hiding him during periods of extreme danger. She is, in effect, Isis to his Osiris, both sister and wife.
Like an archeologist, Craig carefully dusts off each scene, and even each shot, until their symbolic significance is revealed. Here are some examples:
This revelation of the elder Gregor’s occupation of surgeon, that is, one whose main instrument of healing is a knife, aligns him emphatically with his Old Testament counterpart, Abraham, whose sacriﬁcial knife was the crucial element in the whole sordid tale.
Don falls to the ﬂoor in front of the cross-bearing radio set, and this cruel death of a troubled but sympathetic protagonist marks Jail Bait indelibly as the cinema of Wood.
Vic Brady really comes to life here as the incarnation of Set, Osiris’s evil brother. Not only has he been conspiring against the health and safety of Don, his “brother” and partner-in-crime, from the start of the ﬁlm, but he has ﬁnally killed him, and moreover plans on dumping him in a river.
Three days pass.
In the next scene, Brady’s head is now covered in bandages, looking very much like a mummy, with clear allusions to the Osiris legend. Gregor and Marilyn are wearing white lab coats, making them look simultaneously sinister and angelic.
As we approach the delirious conclusion (surgeon Gregor, forced perform plastic surgery on his son’s killer, surreptitiously transforms the latter’s face into his dead son’s):
Inexplicably, Brady’s head is now covered in what appears to be a plaster cast, not the loosely draped gauze wrappings seen in the previous scene. The head looks now like an ancient, mummiﬁed death-mask, in one of Wood’s highly symbolic “continuity errors,” which may not be error at all: As Isis rescued her brother Osiris from the river, and preserved him as mummy, so “Sis” and her father have “resurrected” their lost Osiris, even though this is a fact the audience is not yet aware of.
Forcing a killer to wear the face of the very man he killed is poetic justice of a very rare kind, and with this act, Gregor has managed both to momentarily resurrect his son from an untimely death, and also sacriﬁce him, as the biblical Abraham was prepared to do with Isaac, to fulﬁll his loyalty to “the law.” As well, “Sis,” as Isis has, according to the legend and with the help of her father, retrieved her brother from death, and created a spiritual resting place for Don/Osiris’s reassembled material body, i.e., through his “mummiﬁcation,” and the tragic death and miraculous resurrection of a sympathetic character takes center stage once again in the cinema of Wood, this time with the help of mythical Isis, the great mother of creation
Johns runs outside and shoots the bullet which ﬁnally fells Brady/Don, who falls down, convulsing in his death throes, eventually toppling over into the cleansing water of the pool, ﬁnally receiving the purifying baptism he so sorely needs for a serene immortality in paradise. As Jail Bait ends, so does its celebration of fallen mortals and their subsequent resurrection and gloriﬁcation — overall a memorable postwar “Night of All Souls.” Brady’s conspiracy against Don Gregor has failed, as did Set’s conspiracy against his brother Osiris, as do most evil conspiracies eventually, for although these plots may remove the physical targets from their mortal coils, the morally ignorant actions tend to elevate their targets’ greater legacy, assuring that they will become “larger than life,” in many instances iconic and mythological, with Osiris being a ﬁne example.
Not bad for a bottom of the bill “B” programmer, eh?
Brady’s death, after being tricked into taking on the face of his last victim, Don, brings up another Wood motif that we’ve been at pains to find in our reviews of genre films: what we’ve called “passing the buck” — characters recur, over and over, helplessly performing the same actions over and over (“Pull the string!” as Lugosi’s Glen or Glenda character would say), until they can fob off their karma on another, more hapless character. This is the “scapegoat” or sacrificial victim motif, which recurs in all of Wood’s films:
He is assuredly a scapegoat of sorts. . . . Vic Brady’s shooting at the poolside, most signiﬁcantly while in the mask of Don Gregor, who represents the repentant, grieving community, does qualify as a sacriﬁcial killing. The “public” nature of the swimming pool, an emblematic societal gathering place, marks the killing not as a lone act of justice and revenge, but a community ritual with profound moral implications. In sum, Vic Brady in Jail Bait is a scapegoat for runaway capitalism and its obedient handmaidens, material accumulation and the worship of style over substance.
In sum, Jail Bait is a superlative instance of a creative ﬁlmmaker elevating a pedestrian genre melodrama by imbuing it with allegorical substance and unique aesthetic peculiarities, creating an engaging work which stands both as part of the intended genre, yet a unique exception to that genre. . . . One can assume that Wood was proud of this rare creation, as the end title of Jail Bait proudly boasts, “Made in Hollywood, U.S.A,” in unabashed recognition of that apocryphal land of magic, myth and the mystery arts
While not every chapter offers such an exhilaratingly revisionist reading of an Ed Wood film, each is at filled with fascinating insights and suggestions.
Meditating on Lugosi’s puzzling role in Glen or Glenda, Craig suggests that Lugosi is actually prophetically enacting a role not yet in existence: the local TV “horror host,” a role soon to be created by his future Plan 9 co-star, Vampira.
These hosts, in addition to providing amusing entertainment for the audience with their wildly theatrical antics, most importantly served a critical function, in effect judging the ﬁlms as did the audience, and connecting ﬁlm and audience into one cultural dyad which before TV had been well-nigh impossible. In fact, the TV horror host’s coaxing of their audience to participate in lambasting the ﬁlms suggests a most elemental use of Brechtian philosophy, in which the audience is either seduced or shamed into participating in the action occurring “onstage.”
In another turn of the screw, not mentioned by Craig, Joel Hodgson, creator of MST3k, would cite local TV horror hosts as an inspiration, along the Medved’s books; and just as TV brought film and audience together, the adoption of the Internet did the same for MST’s initially tiny cable audience. Hodgson would also cite their Bride of the Monster episode as the moment they brought everything together in a way that showed their bona fides as good-natured mockers.
Craig also suggests that Lugosi is portraying — or embodying — an alchemist, which he rather idiosyncratically glosses as “a virtually supranational being who had the power to transform beings into heroes or demons at will.” Pull the string! Of course, we can see the relevance of this to Glen or Glenda’s theme of sexual ambiguity and transformation.
This leads us to the vexed and vexing question of Ed’s sexuality. Almost too much is known, through books and Tim Burton’s movie, about Ed’s transvestism and angora fetish; mostly ignored, in the same sources, is his final days as an alcoholic pornographer (too much of a downer for Perky Goth Burton). Craig, as we might expect by now, gives an exemplary account of the relevance of his kinky persona.
First, let’s back up a bit. As Craig correctly notes, Ed Wood transvestite is not Ed Wood homosexual; transvestites are overwhelmingly heterosexual, and rather “conventional” and thus “reactionary” in the eyes of gender activists; not much point in cross-dressing if “we’re all the same” and “gender is a social construct.”
Ed, in fact, was something of a closet conservative; his attacks on dysfunctional “patriarchal families” being made, Craig suggests, in the name of a call to return to earlier functionality. As another critic writes:
Ideologically, Ed Wood had a surprising amount in common with super-conservative Jack Webb [an inspiration for Ed’s numerous cop routines]. The policemen . . . are same dutiful, honest lawmen . . . Ed’s utter contempt for the youth culture, whom he amusingly misidentifies as “beatniks,” a term roughly a decade past its expiration date, is plain. Remember, this is a man who eagerly joined the Marines in WWII, so he would have had no sympathy whatsoever for the anti-Vietnam movement. What seems hypocritical to me is his condemnation of the drug scene, specifically acid and marijuana. (There is one brief reference to “the white stuff,” by which he means heroin, not cocaine.) I say “hypocritical” because Ed was altering his own consciousness with alcohol whenever he could, and the characters in his [works] do likewise. Booze is nearly as central a motif in [his work] as angora.
In his books and scripts, Eddie demonstrated little to no affinity for the counterculture and likely longed to go back to the 1950s, the time when he was making the movies for which he is still best known.
As Craig succinctly puts it, Ed was a “unique cross between a libertine and a prude.”
Thus, to flash forward now, when Ed found himself compelled to direct porn to pay the rent and buy booze, he crafted distinctly un- or anti-erotic works — some, like The Love Feast (1969) even starring his own unappetizing person, in another example of the sacrificial victim motif.
Placing Wood as the male lead in this sorry debacle removes all pretense at erotica, for he is depicted as a bloated old man, with slurred speech, greasy long hair, and a propensity to stumble around — in short, a drunken bum. The end result of tossing this ﬂabby old stumblebum into a sea of taut young bodies is that The Love Feast comes across as a crude and cynical sex farce, a total mockery of its intended genre and a slap in the face to the then-ascendant Sexual Revolution.
What, then, did this “prudish libertine” want to accomplish with his sexually explicit work? Let’s go back again:
Perhaps too much has been made about Wood’s childhood in Poughkeepsie, New York, and his mother’s habit of periodically draping him in little girl’s dresses. While several accounts verify that this occurred, the extent to which this ritual was performed is unknown. And while it most certainly had an impact on the young boy Wood, this practice was not all that uncommon.
The reasons for parents performing this apparently eccentric act on their offspring are complex and obscure, and cannot be analyzed sufﬁciently here. At an unconscious level, it might appear that the parent was attempting, through this highly symbolic, virtually alchemical act, to integrate the child’s psyche by balancing both genders equally, and undertaking an experimental merging of Jungian anima and animus archetypes into one integral, potentially well-adjusted whole.
At ﬁrst blush it may appear that with this recurring theme, Wood is championing the ascendancy of the female, and thus the female principle, over the male principle, which has caused so much havoc in the modern world. Yet upon further inspection, Wood’s [cinema] seems to be hinting at an amicable synthesis of these apparently disparate elements, a conjoining of male and female, spirit and matter which might be coined a “mystical androgyny” or, as the mystics themselves labeled it, “the sacred marriage.”
Although Wood may have primarily denigrated patriarchal institutions while elevating the female to virtual godhead, still he may have ultimately forgiven “the father” for his sins, ﬁnally realizing that his existence was after all due to the hardiness of the problematic yet enduring male-female binary, represented to every living being by its immutable archetype: parents. Wood’s “Mom and Dad,” although ﬂawed, at times even despicable creatures, are each ultimately redeemable, and as every audience member shares this couple, Wood’s ambivalent ruminations may be edifying to all.
“Upon further inspection” or, as I’ve said before,
A close reading of the passages in Evola’s Hermetic Tradition mentioning ‘androgyne’ would show that the process involves the male becoming and then dominating, becoming so as to dominate, the feminine energies, a process he gives the provocative name “philosophical incest.” The Initiate, by transcending duality and achieving Wholeness, partakes of the Androgyne and even can be said to practice what Evola daringly calls “Philosophical Incest.”
Also useful would be a reading of the essay from Evola’s journal UR, “Serpentine Wisdom” reprinted in his Introduction to Magic in which Evola, under a pseudonym, mocks those with a “muscle-bound” understanding of power, advising them to “take on the power of the feminine” (yes, Evola!) and “absorb within himself the ambiguous virtue of the female.”
The idea in alchemy, as in Wood, is not to replace a decaying patriarchy (rooted in the Bronze Age of thuggery) with a gynoecratic regime (a product of the Silver Age), but to “absorbs within himself the ambiguous virtue of the female” and return to the original, Golden Age.
Which brings us back to Isis:
To achieve perfection, the initiate must successfully understand and internalize the dual nature of the world (good and evil; masculine and feminine; black and white, etc.) through alchemical metamorphosis. This concept is symbolically represented by the union of Osiris and Isis (the male and female principles) to give birth to Horus, the star-child, the Christ-like figure, the perfected man of Freemasonry – who is equated with the Blazing Star.
Hence, the constant play among male/female, black(night)/white(daytime) in the “bad” cinema of Ed Wood.
Wood’s ultimate message may be that humans are, at root, divine beings, and if they ever learned to equalize their out-of-balance male/female, spirit/matter aspects, they would be privy to the great secret that life, which is unceasing, is by deﬁnition eternal.
All this talk of death, resurrection, alchemy, and transformation brings us to one final theme that sums them all up: what we, the alt-Right, call Archeofuturism.
Yet Wood was channeling truths even more profound. As he suggested time and again in his highly ritualistic works, death is not the antithesis to life, merely its evolution, again a nod to the female principle of ancient matriarchal myth. Death, at root, is a celebration of life, for only through death is the “spirit” of being released into immortality. Wood may have intuited that a life’s work may only be catapulted into cultural history with the creator’s passing. Life only becomes history when punctuated by death, so death must be the essential partner to life. A person’s life, relived endlessly by his survivors through his creative works and living memory, thoroughly “resurrects” the person in spirit, and this “living death,” his resurrection, may last well into eternity, as so many myths in the world’s great religions suggest.
What Wood knew then, in all its stark glory and terror, was that one must die before one can be resurrected, and it is at that singular moment of death that a person is absolutely and utterly alone, with no one to save him, as he faces the bleak void of the eternal cosmos, exposed and afraid. At the bitter end, Wood had come face to face with his own cosmic void, a cruel if inevitable poetic justice
Archeofuturism comes in two forms, what we might call backward looking and forward looking. First, the presence of the past in its future, our present
Progressive sociological and psychological developments have precedent in recorded history.
The more “sociological“moments of Ed’s films, such as Glen or Glenda, suggest this. As Craig says of Ed’s childhood cross-dressing, “the practice was not uncommon” prior to the Second World War.
The second, perhaps more interesting to the artist, is the presence of the present in our future. Dr. Acula’s fake séances in Night of the Ghouls produce real effects: “any endeavor pursued with sufficient vigor will achieve results, those results potentially surpassing the endeavor’s original intentions.”
“We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” (Criswell)
“Future events such as these will affect You in the future!” at ﬁrst seems absurdly self-evident, but it signals one of Plan9 ’s most exciting conceits — that art in general, and especially avant-garde art which may only be appreciated outside of its own time, may blossom and ﬂourish at some future point. The line thus underscores Wood’s faith that his art, and Plan 9 particularly, would ﬁnd its grateful and abundant audience in that vast temporal mystery known as “the future,” where he and his audience (the aforementioned “you and I”) would share, in spirit, the bounty of this remarkable cinematic achievement. This faith in salvation for art via the passage of time is reinforced by the subsequent line, “Future events such as these will affect You in the future!” Long attributed to Wood, these introductory lines actually belong to Criswell, as they were part and parcel of his standard opening in both his television show and newspaper and magazine columns.
This is the hopeful moral that Counter-Currents readers, and alt-Rightist in general, can take form Ed’s work: “any endeavor pursued with sufficient vigor will achieve results, those results potentially surpassing the endeavor’s original intentions.”
Against all odds, several of Wood’s hopelessly fragile, literally “impossible” ﬁlms were made, released, and eventually received by a large audience. Wood’s ability to create feature ﬁlms out of literally “nothing,” to have them embraced by audiences well into the future, make him to many fans a hero of popular culture.
Of course, Ed may have had some help:
Wood was, according to many sources, drunk during much of his creative activity in both writing and ﬁlmmaking. Could he have also been delusional, and actually thought he was something greater than he was? Did this, in fact, give him the courage to create his astounding personal art? Did Wood in fact create his body of unique work almost entirely in an alcoholic stupor? His peers were aware that Wood was a sad, unrepentant alcoholic, but it was much later when many realized that he might also be a bona ﬁde Dharma Bum, an artistic savant of import, a spiritual teacher merely masquerading as a ﬂop ﬁlmmaker. Some adherents have convincingly suggested that Wood hovers intriguingly above the mere mortal plane; Maila Nurmi, for one, did not hesitate in her assessment of his implausible infamy: “It was karma. He was a chosen one . . .”
The almost “worshipful” behavior of his legion of followers also suggests something mystical about the man. A representative comment by outsider artist Kalynn Campbell shrewdly captures both the “everyman” and deity-like aspects of Wood: “Ed was a maverick, an outcast, a Saint. Ed is us.”
This suggests the true peril of the imposition of sharia law on the culture of the West.
On the other hand, how much more could we accomplish sober? What holds us back? Are we waiting for a job with the official culture machine? Alas, truly revolutionary work won’t appear on “major labels,” nor be released by “major studio.” Ed Wood is us.
The Ed Wood that emerges from Craig’s close viewing is neither the incompetent buffoon of the Medveds nor the sweetly eccentric “outside artist” of Tim Burton, but a socially conservative maker of profoundly symbolic films. Their popularity endures “in the future” not, because they’re “so bad they’re good,” but as carefully crafted amusements that, by leading us to view them over and over, pack an allegorical punch.
The fact that a penniless alcoholic bum managed to commit to celluloid such an ominous, unparalleled meditation on human mortality is nothing short of miraculous.
It will be easier for us; we won’t need miracles, because, as Collin Cleary has said, we will inevitably win, because our ideology is true. We will make our own culture, and announce it as “proudly” (as Craig says several times) as Ed did:
Writer – Producer – Director
Edward D. Wood, Jr.
1. Camp, originally, could be much more: in the hands of Noël Coward, it could be a powerful tool of social critique. As Guillaume Faye advises, “It is mocking and ‘eccentric’ brainwaves that should lay the foundations” for any critique, a principle also well known to the Surrealists (“Gravity lies in what does not appear serious”—Breton) and the Situationists (“subversive ideas can only come from the pleasure principle”—Vaneigem) (Quotes in Guillaume Faye, Archeofuturism: European Visions of the Post-Catastrophic Age [London: Arktos, 2010], p. 57.) See my “Sir Noël Coward, 1899–1973,” Part 1, here and reprinted in The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).
2. The typically Talmudic double-talk of impudently insulting us to our faces, presenting black as white, up as down, then using our bovine acquiescence (rather than slapping their impudent faces) against us. From Seinfeld’s “show about nothing” (featuring “Festivus”, the non-holiday the hipsters like to “ironically” celebrate in “real” life) to insult “comedy” and “roasts“ (“I kid because I love!”), from “the solution to government debt is more spending” to the “magic bullet” and the incredibly collapsing towers, the technique of the “Revelation of the Method” never changes: The goyim will buy anything!
3. In the DVD special feature “Citizen Wood: Making the Bride, Unmaking the Legend,” ironic filmmaker Larry Blamire says he’s stopped calling Ed’s films “bad” because they are, after all, quite enjoyable: “If I had to choose watching Istar or Bride of the Monster again, I’d choose Bride.” See Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XIX.
4. Perhaps, like Seinfeld, they will get their comeuppance: “They’re totally indifferent. All they do is mock me, just like they did the fat fellow. All the time. Mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking. All the time! Now it is Babu’s turn to mock. Finally I will have some justice. Send them away! Send them all away! Lock them up forever! They are not human. Very bad! Very, very, very bad!” — Babu Bhatt, “The Finale, Part One.”
5. Craig notes elsewhere that “Wood was, according to many sources, drunk during much of his creative activity in both writing and ﬁlmmaking.”
6. “Frankly, anyone who could declare Ed and his Plan 9 as the bottom of the barrel after witnessing something like Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Attack of the the Eye Creatures (yep, the second “the” is there on purpose), or The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman needs to have his or her cinematic credentials checked, pronto. “ — Judge Bill Gibron of DVD Verdict reviewing The Ed Wood Box set (Image Entertainment, 2005), here; although his further qualification, “No one is claiming that Ed Wood is some manner of forgotten auteur who made a series of sensational movies that were incorrectly categorized as compost by a few closed-minded critics” will be decisively challenged by the book under review. “Ask any movie lover what they consider to be the worst movie they’ve ever seen. I’ll give you even odds that they say either Pod People or Manos: The Hands of Fate. These two films share an esteemed position far, far, far down on the ‘bad’ movie food chain. Never to be unseated, Pod People and Manos have secured an eternal niche in the bad movie pantheon. As of this writing, Pod People is number 17 on the IMDB Bottom 100 list. I find this pretty surprising actually that people consider 16 other films “worse” than this one. (Manos: The Hands of Fate rests safely at number 1, as usual.)” — Monster Shack. “Coleman Francis is at the bottom of the barrel under the barrel Ed Wood is in.” — Larry Blamire, No Dialogue Necessary: Making an ‘Off-Camera Masterpiece,’ special feature on the MST3k release of Francis’ The Beast of Yucca Flats in the MST3K Vol. XVIII set.
7. Well, maybe not so lazy: “Eddie Wood was many things, but lazy was not one of them. The man just never quit. When I think of Ed now, my image is not of a man standing behind a movie camera but rather a man hunched over an Underwood typewriter, churning out manuscripts and screenplays at a frenzied pace.” — Dead 2 Rights blog, loc. cit.
8. The more usual take on these elements is something like this: “The film’s use of ‘stock footage’ creatures — not only the aforementioned octopus but also a snake and an alligator — is extremely unconvincing, as is Dr. Vornoff’s laboratory, which is constructed like the set of a high school play with its notorious two-dimensional ‘stone wall’ backdrop and kitchen appliances and photograph enlargers in place of actual science equipment.” Dead 2 Rights blog, “Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 3: “Bride of the Monster” (1955)/”The Violent Years” (1956),” here. An Amazon reviewer of Craig’s book retorts: “And I have a VERY hard time picturing Ed Wood saying to his crew “Now make this set really fake . . . I want to make a reference to Brechtean theatre!””
9. “The weaker part of Craig’s book is his attempt to find a feminist message in Wood’s films. To do this, he populates the pages with references to the late radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. On many pages she’s the only source for an argument by Craig. There’s a certain ridiculous irony in Craig using Dworkin to find feminism in the works of a film-maker who has pornography to his credits, but that’s a topic for another time.” — Amazon reviewer.
10. To be fair, Craig goes on to make the excellent point that Wood’s 1948 amateur production, focused on the “bad guy” and his redemption, seems to prophesize the post-war obsession with the “anti-hero” as in such much later 50s films as The Wild One and Rebel Without A Cause.
11. As we’ll see, the most recurrent theme is the theme of recurrence.
12. I briefly discuss this in Greg Johnson’s “Interview with James J. O’Meara” here and reprinted in The Homo & the Negro.
13. The essential error of “Modernism,” which, as Robinson Jeffers suggested, was not the answer to the decline of Romanticism but Its continuation — producing works that only a handful of ivory tower mandarins could properly “appreciate.” See Albert Gelpi’s introduction to the Jeffers anthology The Wild God of this World (Stanford, 2003).
14. “Aesthetically speaking, Nympho Cycler is club-footed and tin-eared. The production is haphazardly photographed, sloppily edited, and lurchingly paced. The dialogue, as is common to the movies of Ed Wood, strangely feels as though it has been translated inexpertly from another language. The plot may as well have been constructed through one of those party games in which someone starts a story and then hands it off to the next person to continue. Why else would there be such a tonally discordant third act which clashed so violently with the rest of the movie? This, though, is the soul of Ed Wood. I keep having to resort to terms like “dreamy” and “dream logic” to describe many of the films in this project, because that’s truly how Ed’s movies feel to me. Events flow into and out of one another but without the strict cause-and-effect relationship we expect from “normal” movies. — Dead 2 Rights blog, here.
15. See his review of The Dark Knight here, and reprinted in Trevor Lynch’s White Nationalist Guide to the Movies (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2013).
16. Kelton then, resembles Wallace in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables, a “runt” who first proves himself physically (the border raid) then by rune-knowledge (deciphering Capone’s ledgers to convict him of tax evasion), finally winding up as a sacrificial victim — hung like Wotan — as so many of Wood’s characters are. See my discussion of both Donovan and de Palma in “‘God, I’m with a heathen.’ The Rebirth of the Männerbund in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables,” here and reprinted in The Homo and the Negro. I discuss similar runts — Vice President Harley in Advise and Consent and Pryce in Mad Men — in “Mad Men Jumps the Gefilte Fish Part Two: The Country of the Blind,” here and “Mad Men Jumps the Gefilte Fish Part Three: The Country of the Blind, Continued,” here.
17. Thus truly, at the bottom of the barrel where Racket Girls is at the bottom. An MST3K version of the latter is available.
18. Judge Bill Gibron, loc. cit.
19. Again, like Racket Girls, there are so many connections — music, producers, actors (including Wood’s wife, Dolores Fuller), overblown narration — that Wood is suspected of having a hand in Mesa as well. See the review of Mesa here, with a rather more negative view of the soundtrack.
20. Craig locates the sacrificial victim motif right from the start, in Wood’s traumatic killing of a Japanese soldier in WWII; this, for Craig, was the start of Wood’s obsession with death, resurrection, and sacrificial victims (often himself), itself an example of helpless recurrence. Maila Nurmi (Vampira) says Wood’s posthumous fame “was karma. He was a chosen one.”
21. Remember, future events such as these will affect your lives, in the future.
22. As McLuhan said that the content of a new medium is an old medium; just as the content of movies was books, and the content of TV was films, so the content of the internet is TV.
23. Hodgson remarks in “Citizen Wood: Making ‘The Bride,’ Unmasking the Legend,” a special feature on the MST3K Bride of the Monster disc, in Vol. XIX (Shout Factory, 2010). As for bona fides, “Sure, MST3K loves to skewer bad movies, but they do so in a fun, playful way, and the films they show have their entertainment value, such as watching Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson literally tear up the scenery in Bride.” — Review by Brad Cook, here.
24. “Wood-as-performer immerses him-self headﬁrst into the female principle [in The Love Feast, to be discussed below], summoning it into his personal bed; at one point, he even chants, ‘Now I love girls! Girls! Girls! Girls!’”
25. For a controversial, non-PC look, see J. Michael Bailey, The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism (Joseph Henry Press, 2003).
26. Elsewhere, Craig notes the indistinguishability of the various dark-suited cops in Jail Bait, another instance of Ed’s cloning of characters.
27. For a similar take on “beatniks” see The Beatniks, a painfully unhip movie that tries to cash in on the tail end of the Beatnik craze by mashing together recycled juvenile delinquent and teen idol plot elements, but no actual beatniks (“If these are beatniks, my mom is a beatnik, and she’s not” says Joel Robinson of MST3k).
28. A trait he shared with ur-Beatnik Jack Kerouac.
29. Dead 2 Rights Blog, “Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 6: ‘Death of a Transvestite’ (1967), here. Craig notes the role of alcohol as a central motif or symbol used throughout Jail Bait. Alcohol, of course, is the “square” drink of the older Mad Men; Senior partner Roger Sterling explains why men drink — “it’s what men do” — and why his generation does it better here.
30. Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 47: “Nympho Cycler”(1971), here.
31. The title, of course, references the original Christian Eucharistic feasts, which, at least among the so-called Gnostics, were rumored top often evolve into orgies.
32. “If you never thought you’d rather watch Criswell than a procession of titty dancers, Orgy [of the Dead] will change your mind.” — Ian Watson, Midnight Movie Madness, Amazon Kindle, 2013. Watson also notes that the titular Fugitive Girls are captured by “predatory hippies”; after escaping, they must throw away their lice-ridden clothes.
33. “A Band Apart: Wulf Grimsson’s Loki’s Way,” here and reprinted in The Homo and the Negro.
34. See Evola, The Hermetic Tradition, Chapter 19.
35. Camille Paglia has suggested that drag performances constituted propitiatory rites to the power of Nature and that when they became unfashionable during the promotion of a “out of the closet” hyper-masculinity (the “Chelsea clone”). Nature struck back in the form of AIDS.
36. “The Mysterious Connection Between Sirius and Human History,” Vigilant Citizen, December 14, 2012, here.
37. The alchemical motto, of course, is “die before you die.”
38. As have I, in some of my most controversial essays, such as “Homosexuality, ‘Traditionalism,’ and Really Existing Tradition” (reprinted in The Homo and the Negro) and “Our Wagner, Only Better: Harry Partch, Wild Boy of American Music,” here and in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014). Alt-Rightists love to talk about “tradition” and “archeofuturism” but just hate it when you point out aspects of the present that are more “traditional” than our 19th century inheritance. These themes are brought together in Night of the Ghouls, where the “ghost-finder” detective (ancestor of Fox Mulder?) is called in on a night he intended to visit the opera, in full white tie and tails, like a figure wandering in from the 19th century (an allusion to Inspector Lohmann’s interrupted taking in of Die Walküre in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse?); Kelton, when told to “accompany” him, assumes (being, as Craig says, “fully feminized”) that he is to take his wife’s place at the performance. Further, recall the “almost avant-garde music” in Jail Bait’s repurposed soundtrack.
39. And the triumph of the Judaic mind, (now the post-war mind of the West, which infuriates Plan 9’s alien Eros: “Your stupid mind. Stupid, stupid mind!”) which anathemizes the alchemical synthesis and fetishizes dualism: kosher/traif, wool/silk, meat/dairy, etc.
40. “Listening to a kooky psychic tell me that I will be spending the rest of my life in the future, as I watch a B&W film from 1958, is strangely amusing.” Badmovies.org.
41. See “Allen Dulles’ Lonely Hearts Club Band: The CIA & the Construction of the Sixties Counter-Culture,” (my review of Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon), here.
Prioritizing Prestige Over Accomplishment: Britain from 1950 to 1956
Biden and Bibi
The Honorable Cause: A Review
George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years
A 5D Plan in 3D: Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder
Munchhausen: The Third Reich’s Wizard of Oz
Not Pretending to Be Anything: Charles Bukowski
Ah yeah, let’s have transvestite booze bag sleaze’n’ porn producer Ed Wood of all people as a new icon for White Nationalism… we’ll have our own army of degenerates now. I do hope you’re being “ironic” with this borderline silliness fest…Either Craig’s book is really satire for the most part, or we witness yet another sign that we live in times of total universal brain collapse. Those quotes are mindblowingly, hilariously idiotic. I almost got surrealist satori from them. Academia is now just another department of producing camp, until nobody knows the difference to real art anymore,which probably already happened.
That being said, yeah, some Ed Wood movies, especially the Lugosi trilogy, are fun and have charm, and being a peculiar mixture of incompentence, sloppiness, sleaze, freak assembly, infantilism, juvenile pulp fiction… they are also odd testaments to a more a naive era than nowadays. This makes them appear more sublime almost than they probably were when they were released. The “bad movie” thing only really works when nostalgia is added, and pop culture has become a memory or a dream, history down in a not-too-distant past…
Oh, thank you James. You just keep getting better or maybe it is me and I am comprehending better. Sometimes when I read Evola , I say to myself, ‘is this really what he is saying?’ then I find out; why yes that is what he is saying.
I am quite taken with the mythological element.
Now this is the kind of thing I’ve been waiting for. Further exploration should be made into the films of Coleman Francis (another MST3K player), Andy Milligan, Michael Findlay. What fascinates me most about some of these films is the dreamtime quality of them…the spontaneous quality that all dreams share. One might also recommend strangely soporific films like “‘Manos’ The Hands of Fate” (which can really only be described as “uncanny” despite the lame appraisal of IMDB.com users who base their trashing of the film on the fact that it was featured on MST3K and nothing else) as well as the European products “Oasis of the Zombies” (by the expat Spaniard Jesus Franco) and “Zombies’ Lake” (by the French poet Jean Rollin). These sorts of movies give rise to something not unlike what is experienced while using magic mushrooms…a dreamy state in which sleep, movement, intellect, instinct and emotion blur together. (They’re also a hell of a lot more fun than more “serious” attempts at tedious bourgeois surrealism.)
What the new-alt-whatever Right needs to do is to learn how to harness hyperreality to its own ends and like the dream-movies of Wood et al create a hyperreal “reality” that is, in fact, an actual Reality and lead Western man out of this dreary morass into something better (or at least not hyperreality!).
Coleman Francis, the cinematic poet of parking, is in fact up next (in the film series, not nec’ly the next piece I write). And yes, soporific is the key. Consider the endless up and down of the eponymous Skydivers, or the moebius plot of Red Zone Cuba.
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