I have little time or regard for the Golden Turkey cult which began in the early '80s – the exhibition of certain supposedly Very Bad movies for the sake of our superior, wicked amusement. Like other serious lovers of B grade cinema, I find the whole Bad Movie phenomenon unbearably pinched and ungenerous. It's a truly nerdish approach to film: find a movie from a previous decade that has a few technical gaffes, an unbelievable story line, naive characters, and bargain basement production values, and then laugh mercilessly at it because it does not live up to the standards of what a supposedly normal or good film must be.
Yet, if cheap B movies stand as anything, it is as a formidable challenge to our petty, reductive, conventional ideas about what makes up a good, believable, normal film. The cinema can be many things, and B movies challenge us to embrace this plurality.
Why do the Golden Turkey nerds wield the frightening influence that they do in current film culture? I have my own theory about what makes a nerd a nerd in Western civilisation: nerds believe that they are being unbelievably cool, hip and radical, when one part of them – the best, unconscious part of them – gets attracted to something that is wild, some extreme of pop culture or underground culture, like comics or horror movies or Hong Kong action-fantasy movies. But then some other more conscious reflex kicks in – some shocking, censorious superego – and they take upon themselves the task of policing this wild extremity, almost resenting it in fact.
So the nerds start dividing the good horror movies, for instance, (which turn out to be dismally few in number) from the bad horror movies (which are, as always, legion). At that point they are toadying to the most tired and leaden of society's established standards, rather than going out on a limb, exploring something which is new, different or challenging. They take their revenge against what is unfamiliar – the revenge of the nerds – rather than embracing it.
In one of the best articles on B movies and their supposed badness, Bill Routt described the founding bible of the Golden Turkey cult, the Medveds' book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time as "an apotheosis of constriction, constipation as criticism, in which anything that speaks of risk is condemned as foolish, loose and uncontrolled, prodigally stupid or inept". Routt acknowledges the fun element that is supposed to accompany the bad movie cult – the "pleasurable perversity" that awaits us when we re-watch these old movies – but he's right when he comments that bad-movie cultists consider themselves "immune to whatever cultural diseases are spread" by this magnificent perversion. I do think its OK to laugh at B movies – there's often a lot to laugh at in them, on every conceivable level. But there's one kind of laughter which is lordly and superior, and another kind that actually expresses some kind of awe or respect, however cock-eyed, for the energies and oddities and achievements that are in these films.
There is greatness in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, and it is intrinsically bound up with the position the film takes, the attitude it expresses, towards so-called Bad B movies. Ed Wood is a biography of the infamous director Edward D. Wood, Jr., taking in roughly ten years of his life from the start of his filmmaking career, through three key productions of the '50s. As biography, it is remarkably authentic – as can be verified by consulting Rudolph Grey's wonderful book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.
However, it's difficult to even introduce the subject-matter of this film without falling into a dreaded Golden Turkey-style patter – and I accuse all reviewers who fall into this reflex mockery when they discuss Burton's film. The patter runs as follows: Ed Wood was the worst director who ever lived. He was the guy who made the worst movie of all time in the '50s, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). He was the guy who dressed up like a woman even when he has directing on set, and who had a kinky thing for angora sweaters.
Let's get past this angora thing straight away. Yes, Edward D. Wood, Jr. was a transvestite, and quite proud of it. Yes, he did make a movie called Glen or Glenda (1953), starring himself and largely about his own life, which explores the issue of transvestism in an almost documentary, educational way. But Burton's film is not made for the sake of allowing us a few dry, wicked laughs at the expense of its real-life hero, or his films, or even his angora fetish. Johnny Depp, who plays Wood, brings a wonderful, matter-of-fact warmth, poignancy and lovableness to every aspect of this remarkable individual. He gives the character of Wood an admirable Capraesque spin: all smiles, manic gesticulations and boyish cheer.
Reviewers at large could take their cue from what Depp himself says about this film. In interview, Depp remarked that he did not consider Wood a bad filmmaker. He was ridiculed for putting images in his films that David Lynch was acclaimed for thirty years later – and as Depp so rightly added, where's the balance in that?
Listening to the wisdom of this brilliant young actor made me ponder the very art of acting. Of course Depp, or any self-respecting actor, couldn't have gone into this project thinking: "I'm about to portray a jerk who was the worst filmmaker of all time". That would have led to the worst kind of lame, nudge-wink, comic satire.
Rather, Depp had to find something to believe in, something positive and real and truthful in this part, in order for him to play it. Gene Hackman has said a similar thing about his role in Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead (1995): you can't play the villain as a villain, you have to find a way to play him as a real person, with his own good reasons for doing what he does, no matter how evil these actions. Johnny Depp's belief in the character of Ed Wood is absolutely crucial to Tim Burton's film, since what this film is so centrally about is Ed Wood's belief in himself.
Burton does not mock Wood, but things are not as simple as that. In fact Ed Wood develops an extremely complex and intricate perspective or point-of-view on its main character. Burton's essential sympathy with Wood doesn't mean he shirks showing us his hilariously bizarre way of getting a film made. We see all the famous ploys, techniques and accidents that are part of the legend of Edward D. Wood: the way he picked up a motley but ever-faithful crew of eccentric, non-professional actors; the way he would keep the camera turning, no matter what disaster was happening on set, and never shoot anything twice; and the true B-movie fashion in which he would piece together a movie from any assortment of bits and pieces – a stolen prop, a sensational title, a bit of old stock footage left over in the editing room.
Wood was a truly primitive and naive filmmaker: he trusted in whatever he had on hand, whatever he could get in a hurry – and as a result, films like Plan 9 are mind-boggling mixtures of different genres, wildly different acting styles, and sometimes even different stories or different movies colliding in the same scene. There's a touch of Ed Wood, years later, in the extravagant surrealist concoctions of a director like Raúl Ruiz.
Despite his sympathy for his subject, Burton does not indulge some romantic fantasy that Wood was a maligned, frustrated genius like Orson Welles, who is an important touchstone in this film: Wood modelled his career on Welles', and in his own mind may have indeed considered himself another Orson Welles. So Burton and his writers engineer a scene, near the end of this story, where Ed actually bumps into Welles in a bar. This marvellous scene plays on the similarities between these two filmmakers: Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio) talks of the repeated failure to get up his cherished projected of Don Quixote; he bemoans the fact that he is about to do a thriller, but his studio, Universal, is thrusting Charlton Heston on him to play the part of a Mexican cop. The film in question is of course Welles' masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958).
But this reference is more than a clever in-joke. I'd like to think that Burton knows the story of how Charlton Heston, at a tribute to Welles, bristled at Peter Bogdanovich's suggestion that Touch of Evil was "a masterpiece". Heston corrected that judgment, saying that he preferred to call it "the best B picture ever made". The best B picture ever made, presumably, can never be considered a masterpiece like real, normal, A pictures.
Tim Burton does not overtly champion Wood, or his films, or even B cinema in general. He shows Wood clear-sightedly for what he was – a nut, but a spirited nut, a nut with vision and passion, someone who could galvanise the least likely people into sharing the endless adventure of his mad filmmaking. One thing that Burton completely avoids, however, is playing into the hands of the Golden Turkey cult and its well-established rituals.
The Bad Movie cult is a ritual of consumption, like some revolt of an appropriately primed audience against the film they're watching. Burton never gives us a single scene where an audience laughs wickedly at one of Wood's finished films. The only time that we get anything like this, when a studio head thinks he's being had and roars laughing in a private screening, we're clearly not meant to laugh along with this truly ugly bastard.
Burton tries to stay inside Ed's world and vision as much as possible, by showing him always in the moment of filming, on the set: here, Wood is at his most charismatic, his most energetic – he's both lovable and utterly possessed. Burton never takes us in for a comic shot through the fictional cameraman's lens: we stay entranced by the whole dazzling, social choreography of Ed's fantasy of himself as a director.
Yet it still wouldn't be correct to say that Burton's point of view on Wood corresponds exactly with Wood's own fantastic view of himself. Ed Wood exploits, in a masterly way, one of the richest possibilities that narrative cinema possesses. This is the possibility of a structure in which the point-of-view of the hero, and the point-of-view of the director, are always kept distinct from each other, and where a game of hide and seek is played between these two points of view.
Generally, this is not a structure that the American cinema likes to use very much. The Americans prefer us to be on side with the hero at all times, as in Spielberg's Indiana Jones films. Only at the edges of the American system, in certain genres or sub-genres like the film noir, do we find stories that follow a hero's point-of-view for a while and then suddenly get outside it, subvert it, and perhaps reveal some other sinister character to be in control of the whole plot. Something like this happens in many of Welles' films, in Fritz Lang and in Hitchcock, and it also happens in the modern gangster thrillers of De Palma and Scorsese.
But European filmmakers, particularly European filmmakers in an art cinema tradition, really love these two points-of-view to be at play in a movie. European directors and critics speak of the two looks, the two regards in a film – the look of the character inside the story versus the look of the director, the camera look which suggests a higher understanding, a deeper perspective on what is really going on. Not surprisingly, Ed Wood is more acclaimed in Europe than in America, and I suspect it's precisely for this reason.
In this light, the film can be described simply: Ed Wood, in his own mind, sees himself as a great filmmaker, but Burton, standing apart, sees Wood for what he really is, which is something rather more ragged. The height of this game in the film comes at the premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space. As the lights go down, Wood glances at the rapt, hushed crowd, and says aloud: "This is the one I'll be remembered for". He's right, but only we and Burton know the full painful irony of this line.
Another complexity of perspective enters the film via the character of Bela Lugosi, played by Martin Landau in a performance as brilliant as Depp's. The figure of Lugosi brings another glimpse of hard, cold reality into the margins of Ed Wood's fantasy dream world. Shortly after they have first met, Ed sits in Lugosi's living room, watching TV, while the actor retires for a moment into the next room. Through a curtain, while Ed's eyes remain fixed on the TV, we see the first indication of Lugosi's desperate dependence on drugs. The tragic plight of this character affects us more deeply because of the indirect way in which Burton presents it.
In the greatest moment of the film – and it's also the greatest moment of Burton's entire directorial career to date – Lugosi, at the end of his tether, checks himself into an institution to dry out. In a strange, haunting, absolutely heart-rending moment, we see Lugosi in his cell, alone, after Ed has left him: screaming and howling like a monster from one of his own horror movies. Here, the film's games with intertwining film-fantasy and harsh reality reach an extraordinary peak.
Ed Wood could be described as a film about a deluded man. In fact, it relates closely to a number of films about deluded men who are enslaved inside horrible ideologies, fantasies or distorted world views – David Cronenberg's Gothic dramas Naked Lunch (1991) and M. Butterfly (1993), and also Andrei Konchalovksy's vastly underrated portrait of Stalinist Russia, The Inner Circle (1991). The reason why so many people found these dark dramas almost unbearably bleak and disconcerting is because they brutally played up this difference between the hero's blind fantasy, and the crushingly horrible reality all around him that he just can't see, until it's too late. Ed Wood tells this kind of story too, but it's a cheery, upbeat, optimistic version: Ed gets to remain inside his fantasy.
Like many great films, Ed Wood is also a film about the cinema itself. I don't mean by this simply that it's about a filmmaker, or that it shows how films are made: there are things deeper and more internal to the film that make it a profound reflection on cinema. Any movie that tackles the subject of delusion, of someone's fantasy projection and their mad belief in their own vision – any movie that tackles these things head-on is immediately a film about the cinema, and particularly about what it is to watch cinema.
Movies, of course, are fantasy-worlds, which encourage what is commonly referred to as a measured "suspension of disbelief", although I think a more frankly psychotic immersion in unreality is what often actually goes on between viewers and the screen. Movies demand total belief in an illusion, total investment of our psychic energy in some crazy, artificial folly. They demand, in short, an abandonment of our prior, socialised, civilised selves, and this is where B movies, Ed Wood's B movies included, have their greatest power. These movies invite us to abandon everything: dramatic disbelief, realism, conventional morality, traditional standards of artistic taste and aesthetic judgement. They truly take us "beyond good and evil" – and Ed Wood, with his movies and his illusions and his angora sweaters, was beyond good and evil on most fronts.
Ed Wood lives out, and embodies, a sublime paradox. Here is an expensive A movie about B movies, with a brilliant contemporary director meticulously recreating the images and sounds perpetrated by a naive, primitive director of yesteryear. Burton is in supreme control of his film – his most finely modulated and beautifully crafted work to date – and yet he lets himself be invaded, possessed by the perverse spirit of this deceased tack-meister.
In a profound way, Ed Wood is something of a queer movie, queer not in the strict sense of gay, but in the sense of a film that has lost its conventional moorings, and is drifting pleasurably through all kinds of delights, effects and fantasies. In making this movie, Burton has come to share something of the radical world-view that John Waters presents in his outlandishly camp movies. Here we re-find a Waters-sort of happy family gathered around Wood: a makeshift community of sexual outlaws, freaks, bums, oddballs, unclassifiables. Even the lofty Vampira (Lisa Marie), at first so disdainful of the whole circus, is slowly possessed by the collective madness of this venture.
The dream-world of Ed Wood – it's almost a Shangri-La, a utopia for those who share in it – rests upon this precious suspension of all judgment, whether moral or artistic. There's something sublime about this drifting, queer suspension, and also something very warm and cheery. When someone in the film remarks to Ed that he displays the admirable trait of not passing judgment on other people, he ponders for a moment and then wisely replies: "Well, if I did, I wouldn't have any friends".
© Adrian Martin July 1995