From Bozo to Bertolucci:
James J. O'Meara
How Not to Watch the Films of Ed Wood, Jr.
Andrew J. Rausch and Charles E. Pratt, Jr.
The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood
Albany, Georgia: Bear Manor Media, 2015
“Even a terrible piece of shit is somebody’s dream.” — Andre Perkowski
“It turns out that making movies is really, really hard.” — Joel “MST3k” Hodgson
“You’d screw a cockroach if it turned you on!” To this, Toni says she would not screw a cockroach because cockroaches are black, and she will not go black. — Fugitive Girls (Ed Wood, 1974)
Constant Readers know that I loves me some bad film, and especially — though not exclusively — the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr. So I immediately obtained this book when I first heard about it from the estimable Joe Blevins of the Dead2Rights blog. The blog features “Ed Wood Wednesday,” an attempt to exhaustively examine the complete films and fiction of Wood, Jr., week by week. I thought this would be more of the same, but it’s actually a rather confusing and disappointing book.
It starts with the physical book (or Kindle) itself. We’ve got two authors, with two “Author’s Notes,” singular, but not attributed to either in particular. The subsequent text is mostly in the plural, although sometimes lapsing into the singular, so it’s hard to tell who’s saying what. This main text is surrounded by another two “Forewords” at the start and about ten interviews by one or the other or both authors at the back, followed by an “Afterword” by yet another author.
But my real confusion — and subsequent disappointment — arise from the content. There are several “generations” of Wood criticism displayed here, and most are not to my liking. To explain this, I need to sketch in some background for the Wood layman, for which I will make use of a useful model suggested by Joe Blevins the Three Waves of Wood.
For the last few decades, Ed’s name always meant something to people, but exactly what it meant depended on the tenor of the times. Wood’s first wave of after-death notoriety occurred in the early-to-mid-1980s and was spurred by the publication of Harry and Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards. Only the rudiments of Eddie’s life and work were widely known at the time, so the first wave was marked by mockery and derision. Wood was merely a cross-dressing clown who made cheap and incredibly amateurish flying saucer flicks. For many, this is still the predominant public image of Ed Wood, thirty-plus years later, so we can safely say that the first wave was the most influential and durable of the three. During this wave, Eddie’s most famous films from the 1950s (the “big three”: Glen or Glenda?, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Bride of the Monster) were staples at rep houses and campus theaters, where they were loudly and joyously jeered by hip audiences.
The second wave happened in the early-to-mid-1990s and was centered around Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and its literary progenitor, Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy. It was, in a way, a response to the first wave. Second wavers sought to rehabilitate Eddie’s image somewhat, while still snickering at his life’s work. Much more information about Ed Wood’s life was known by then, including his debilitating alcoholism, his war record, his prolific career in pornography, and his tragic and poverty-stricken final years. Appropriately, Eddie was treated with more sympathy and understanding by second wavers, though he remained a figure of fun to them. Wood was still a clown, but now he was a tragic clown; he’d been upgraded from Bozo to Pagliacci, so to speak. Besides Burton’s film and Grey’s book, the second wave was notable for the appearance of several loving yet cheeky and irreverent documentaries (typified by Ted Newsom’s Look Back in Angora) which sought to put Wood’s cinematic lunacy into some kind of understandable context while still having some guffaws at his expense.
Third-wave Woodology . . . has been made possible by advancements in technology, including search engines and social media. These online breakthroughs have made it much easier for writers and researchers to access and disseminate information as well as stay in contact with other like-minded fans. . . . [T]he Wood cult — which had been largely dormant since the Clinton years — began to rise from its slumbers in the 21st century with crucial new books (Ed Wood, Mad Genius; Blood Splatters Quickly), DVD reissues (Big Box of Wood; Ed Wood’s Dirty Movies), and special events (the gallery exhibition of his paperbacks; a week-long New York film festival). Pvt. Wood has been officially called back into service. Hopefully, the third wave of Wood’s fame will be the one which finally “gets it right” by painting the most complete and honest portrait yet of this surprisingly-complex man. Learning from the first and second waves (without letting our thinking be dictated by them), we third wavers can now use all the information at hand to accurately and evenhandedly assess Eddie’s strengths and weaknesses, and we can identify what is still unique and fascinating about Ed’s work, while not losing sight of its shortcomings or spoiling all its fun. Perhaps in this sense, time has been a gift to us. As Ed recedes further and further into the past, he can now get the fair day in court he has been denied for decades.
Having just transitioned myself from second to third waver, courtesy of Rob Craig’s Ed Wood, Mad Genius, and seeing Craig’s name among those of the interviewees for this book, I naturally snapped it up as a further work of the Third Wave, extending both Craig’s analysis and its content (with the inclusion of the porn, “lost” films, etc.),
Alas, the authors prove to me very much of the Second Wave, still seeking, as Blevins says, to “put Wood’s cinematic lunacy into some kind of understandable context while still having some guffaws at his expense.”
Even the author(s) sense how odd this is, with these remarkable confessions in their “Authors Note (2)”:
In the course of writing this book we discovered that some people revere Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s work in a different way than we do; they don’t revere it more, just differently.
We are not in the camp who laughs at Wood and labels him a failure, nor are we a part of the camp who labels him a misunderstood genius and a genuine artist.
We tend to fall somewhere in the middle on that scale; more than anything we admire Wood’s endless passion for creation, be it personal films, pornographic films, or lurid paperback novels.
Our beliefs regarding Wood’s work tend to be somewhat different than the more academic writers like Rudolph Grey and Rob Craig, . . . Are [his films] really art? Or, even more to the point, are they really artless? We don’t really support either of these positions.
Reading the actual movie capsules that follow, all this on the one hand / on the other hand business seems to boil down not to a happy medium but simply lands the authors in the Wave Two camp: Ed was au fond talentless chump, but you have to admire his grit, spunk, gumption, and all-American stick-to-it-ivness.
What follows is more of a forced march though Wood’s work, each movie (of the one’s the authors deign to recognize as “a real Wood film”) receiving a more or less elaborate synopsis, with the author(s) adding observations on Woods’ ineptitude — though seldom stooping to what one interviewee later calls “sneery Medvedian tropes” — and usually — but not always, especially in the “porno” section — giving Ed a gold star for effort.
Which is not to say that our authors — or at least one of them — don’t have the makings of a fine critic. They can get off a zinger or two; here, describing a film by a latter-day Wood Wannabe:
In Wood’s films the performers at least looked like real actors, but in this film a fair number of the actors look like they were rounded up at the nearest Starbucks.
Their strictures — unlike the urban legends of the First Wave critics — are pretty much always accurate, at least; as my mentor, Dr. Deck, said of Walter Kaufmann’s commentary on Hegel, it’s usually accurate but never profound. For example, occasional bits like this:
This flashback-heavy film can be seen as Wood’s own perverted version of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973).
Now that’s a film I’d like to see! And that’s the sort of thing a critic like Rob Craig, as we’ll see, could really do something with, beyond being a one-liner. And I admit that this capsule summary of Ed’s porn flick The Class Reunion (1972) did have me laughing out loud:
Imagine The Big Chill (1983) without the groovy soundtrack or the life-reaffirming conversation, and with everyone having lots and lots of sex, and you will have a pretty good idea of what this picture is.
Speaking of that hymn to the self-regard of ’60s Boomers, the authors are far too prone to substitute moral tut-tutting for cinematic criticism. For example, in The Violent Years (1956), the girl gang of teen delinquents meet their Waterloo after their fence hires them to smash up a classroom, à la Bart Simpson, to please some “foreign interests.” Our authors comment that
This is, of course, ridiculous, and goes to show just how paranoid and uneducated Americans (and, in this case, Ed Wood) were at that time regarding Communism. Why would Communists care if a classroom is vandalized? Presumably to destroy the American way of life, which is silly to say the least.
Well, “of course,” it is after all a film written, if not directed, by Ed Wood, Jr. But the idea that fears of Communism, however exaggerated and melodramatic in presentation, are “paranoid and uneducated” is simply elitist goodthinking claptrap. Notice that the authors don’t just think that “Extra: Commies hire teen gang” is silly — it is — but rather the very idea, not just the bizarre treatment, of Communists wanting to sabotage American education. Ever hear of the Frankfurt School?
Arguing the point would be to fall into the same trap, substituting politics for criticism. But it is symptomatic, I think, of the authors’ inability to do just that, to engage in serious cinematic criticism (rather than cataloging “cinematic misadventures”). They are quite unable to take a profoundly conservative man, like Ed Wood, Jr., seriously.
After decades of “commie-symp” education, people like our authors are unable to even understand how it was precisely the “educated,” such as Francis Parker Yockey or Lawrence Dennis, who would understand the threat of Communism. Educated on today’s simple Liberal shibboleths, our authors are unable to grasp the complexities of a man who cross-dressed but despised “fags” in his movies; who “who longed for the public to accept his own sexual condition as a transvestite” but loathed those he always called “beatniks.”
The authors are especially censorious about Wood’s “hypocrisy” in denouncing pornography in films like The Sinister Urge (1962) yet ultimately being forced to become a pornographer himself in the ’70s.
Of course, the whole point is that Wood was forced, by poverty and alcoholism, to such depths, and who among us can say what we would do in similar circumstances? In Love Feast (1969) he himself appears, drunk and bloated, and the authors lay it on:
Wood spends a great deal of this picture in baggy, ill fitting underwear, crawling around on all fours and acting silly. . . . Clearly his idol, Orson Welles, who sank as low as to do beer and wine commercials, would never have made a film in which he wore only underwear.
Well, thank God for that, for both of us, but rather than attacking the authors’ lack of charity — and thus descending to their level — let me point out that this is an example of where a true critic, looking at the man and the work without malice, can provide us with some insight. Here’s Rob Craig’s take on the same film:
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.
Arguable, perhaps, but at least he’s trying, rather than taking the easy way out as the paradoxical — or is it, hypocritical? — Liberal Scold.
As a final example, consider this reflection on a key plot point in Jail Bait, Wood’s 1954 follow-up to Glen or Glenda? and arguably his magnum opus:
This is where Wood’s usual illogical thinking once again comes into play; Don says he will give himself up to the police, but not for another three days. The father agrees. However, it is never said what exactly Don plans to do for those next three days. More than likely this is just an excuse to further the plot by having Vic capture Don, which he does immediately.
By contrast, for Craig, the three day occultation of the body is not Wood’s “usual illogical thinking” but rather part of the evidence he adduces for discerning no less than the myth of Osiris as the deep structure of the film.
The authors do, I must admit, address this issue head on. Quoting Craig’s assessment of the aforementioned porn flick, The Class Reunion,
Within all the deadening sex and pointless plot twists lies the true soul of the poet-philosopher, featuring contradictory yet fascinating observations on sexual mores, socio-political phenomena, and the deathless existential riddles shared by the human race.
With all due respect, we disagree with this assessment. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Fair enough; but as mentioned above, I actually like their Big Chill take the same film and wish they had been free-spirited enough to just go with it, and stop all the finger-pointing.
Adding to the confusion — or perhaps clash — of viewpoints, but increasing the value of the contents significantly, are almost a hundred pages of interviews with Wood enthusiasts of various sorts, and the two Forewords, one by Ted Newson (author of Look Back in Angora) and an Afterword by David C. Hayes (editor of Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr.)
Among the interviewees, the standout, of course, is Rob Craig, whom I’m tempted to call the Camille Paglia of the Third Wood Wave, and here does much to redress the balance on Wood, and gives us some sense of his almost divine enthusiasm for cinema:
The first viewing of a film is sacred thing — what I call the “virgin viewing” — preferably without any foreknowledge whatsoever about the film or its history. In this first viewing, if one pays attention, one can easily discern the spirit if you will, of its maker, and the effect is often electric.
And he continues to promote the kind of “close watching” we’ve endorsed in our own film reviews:
Any interesting artist, in any medium, may create works which contain within them certain recurring themes, plotlines, characters and concerns which are valid to see and valid to enjoy.
Even a supposedly bad filmmaker like Wood has, if you care to look, a lot going on in the films.
When I actually got down to a close reading of [Larry Buchanan’s films], so many things started to pop out at me, like the constant presence of a heroic “super-couple” who saved the world, Homer-like, from all evil, within a grimly realistic, deeply depressed, suburban setting. I knew that the same would be true with Ed Wood, and it was.
Most of the reviews of the Wood book accused me, rather predictably, of over-interpreting, hallucinating, or just plain making things up in the films in order to create a pseudo-academic critical analysis of a bunch of bad films which should by no means be looked at seriously. (My favorite review was in Video Watchdog, which suggested I should “go outside and get some fresh air!”)
Craig also reiterates themes in his reading of Wood that we’ve connected to the alt-Right’s notion of Archeofutursm or Palingenesis:
Any cultural text which resonates and entertains (i.e. “holds up”) years after its manufacture has something going on which cannot be ignored.
Wood was either ahead of (or outside) his time.
I was also excited to learn of another interviewee, New Jersey’s Andre Perkowski, who, although apparently making terrible Ed Wood homages — yet more confusion, why are these people letting themselves be interviewed by the writers who savaged them in the main text? — is also responsible for “a three hour adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Nova Express” and a “Super-8 gutter kung fu epic” dubbed by no less than Phil Proctor (Firesign Theatre), Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul), and Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu (MST3k). Now that’s another film I want to see!
In the end, I can’t really recommend this book to anyone but an Ed Wood completist, who may find enough of interest to balance the irritation with the authors’ tone and Second Wave attitudes, or just wants the exhaustive film production details. Anyone who really wants to know why Ed Wood matters should still make the effort to read Craig’s sometimes post-modernly portentous tome.
Ed Wood had, and more importantly has, something to say to us, both in the archeofuturistic themes of his films, and in his example of how to work outside the official cultural system.
“Look what Wood did with a couple hundred bucks, a few thousand bucks, and some close friends — he made films that almost everybody knows about, that have endured, that are still loved by many. I consider this a great feat, actually. [He] forged entirely unique — if rough — products using only his wits and immediate resources, and playing entirely by his own rules.” (Rob Craig)
“Despite boldly proclaiming “MADE IN HOLLYWOOD, U.S.A.,” this was some other sort of Hollywood.” (Andre Perkowski)
As David C. Hayes says in his Afterword:
He wasn’t simply some Hollywood hack job, Ed Wood had a voice. His films had their own language and he was actually SAYING something. What that something was and how important it would be to humanity was up for debate but it was something.
1. See my “Essential Films . . . & Others,” here
2. I’m still in the early stages of an essay on the cinematic oeuvre of Coleman Francis which should establish him as the true Orson Welles of Grade Z move-making, as well as likely becoming my own opus maximus. Or kill me.
3. Why? See my “Getting Wood: Closely Watching the Cinematic Alchemy of Edward D. Wood, Jr.,” a review of Rob Craig’s Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009), here.
4. A Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart; killed many a Jap and was tortured in a POW camp. “Wood is said to have been a model soldier and a vicious fighter. . . . his teeth bashed out from being struck with the butt of an enemy rifle and having his leg disfigured by gunfire.” One wonders how many manly men of the man-o-sphere would fit that description?
5. “Ed Wood’s Sleaze Paperbacks” curated by Johan Kugelberg and Michael P. Daley; November 2–December 4, 2011, at Boo-Hooray in Soho. Also the site of a recent exhibit of Corvoiana — “The Death Centenary of Baron Corvo,”curated by Johan Kugelberg; All Saint’s Day, November 1st, 2013 — see my “e-Caviar for the Masses” here.
6. Wednesday, April 15, 2015; “Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 59: ‘Cult Movies’ No. 11 (1994) [part 2 of 2],” here.
7. Blevins is a bit skeptical: “The focus is on Ed’s canonical feature films as a director and writer. The book’s Amazon page states that the authors will be ‘providing in-depth looks at the 29 existing films written and/or directed by Wood.’ . . . I’d certainly be curious to learn which movies constitute ‘the 29 existing films’ in the eyes of Messrs. Rausch and Pratt, since I’d put the total at around 40.”
8. Blevins is a bit charitable in his notice: “Tonally, this looks to be rather less formal and academic than Rob Craig’s Ed Wood, Mad Genius from 2009, but the general scope of the new book seems to be about the same as Craig’s. . . . While Craig’s book is largely quite serious, this one claims to be ‘hilarious and reverential.’” As Blevins says about the claim to cover “all” of Ed’s films, we’ll see about that.
9. One Amazon reviewer complains about a lack of “spoiler alerts,” as if the pleasure of viewing a Wood film came from narrative surprises. On the one hand, as Rob Craig says here, “If you asked me what are the worst movies ever made, I would unhesitatingly start with Star Wars (1977), Ghostbusters (1984), and E.T. (1982). . . . They are utterly predictable. . . . The sheer awkwardness of Wood’s films makes them easy targets for perfection-oriented souls who don’t like to see any missteps or incongruities in their film narratives, preferring squeaky-clean, predictable corporate product.” On the other, as we’ll see Craig himself saying later, the genius of Wood’s films is that they, unlike other Z-grade product, richly repay repeat viewing, what I call “closely watching.”
10. “Ridiculous” occurs at least eleven times, usually referring to dialogue. One sometimes feels the authors are straining at gnats: asking what could it could mean when a policeman has “a cold problem” (i.e., what we would call today “a cold case”).
11. “The Wood revival [was] inspired by The Golden Turkey Awards, by the brothers Medved. [Michael Medved is] the Gene Shalit clone (or a well-dressed Ron Jeremy) who . . . actually interviewed a few drunks and liars to get background on Wood, hence worldwide mistaken impressions in general and specific (i.e. that Plan 9 from Outer Space is the worst movie ever made), including uncountable errors about the films and the man.” — From the “Foreword” by Ted Newsom. By the way, those readers who may think my own reviews are somewhat “unfair” might consider Newsom’s remark that the interviews making up Rudolph Gray’s Nightmare of Ecstasy were “rearranged by topic by editor Adam Parfrey of feral Press, but neither felt fact-checking was necessary.”
12. Hegel: Texts and Commentary; Hegel’s Preface to his System in a new translation by Walter Kaufmann; (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1966).
13. As to how “life affirming” the original is, see my essay “Of Costner, Corpses, and Conception: Mother’s Day Meditations on The Untouchables and The Big Chill,” here and reprinted in The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).
14. As the boys on the Satellite of Love would advise us, “Repeat to yourself ‘it’s just a show/ I should really just relax.’”
15. I haven’t seen it, but I’m sure author Rausch had no problem with reliably commie-symp (as Wood would say) Orson Welles in his 2008 Making Movies with Orson Welles: A Memoir (with Gary Graver). Welles himself, as I point out in my “Breaking Badge: Touch of Evil through the Lens of Breaking Bad” (here), was a great enough artist to portray the evil Hank Quinlan so intimately that audiences took him to be the hero, not Charlton Heston’s boring Vargas.
16. The authors suggest that Ed’s use of the term “beatnik” well into the ’70s shows he was “out of touch,” I would suggest it shows that, like Jack Kerouac, another deeply conservative artist, he had too much contempt for them to pay them any continuing attention. As they note, Ed was a lifelong fan of Jack Webb, and Dragnet’s “just the facts” approach profoundly influenced his tendency to use a police procedural framework in his films. Coleman Francis, by the way, was frequent bit player on Dragnet.
17. Perhaps this Rausch, author of Dirty Talk: Conversations with Porn Stars (2015). “Many of the pornographers are depicted as swarthy, Armenian-looking fellows with ugly scars and brooding personae,” which seems like realism to me, and recalls the comparison above, of neocon Michael Medved to Ron Jeremy — isn’t that supposed to be a bad thing? Again, the authors are outraged when their porno pals are portrayed as a “band of low-life smut peddlers . . . connected to the American Mafia.”
18. As William Burroughs would say, “Wouldn’t you?” Or as Mike Tyson says, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
19. For more on this and Ed as a “unique cross between a libertine and a prude,” see my review of Craig, op. cit.
20. See Craig, op. cit., and my review, op. cit.
21. Such as Zontar: Thing from Venus or Attack of the The Eye Creatures [yes, sic.]
22. I hear you, Rob!
23. On the distinction of men against, with, and outside of Time, see Saviti Devi, The Lightning and the Sun, ed. R. G. Fowler (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015).
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