Ask people who the best director of all time happens to be, and chances are that you will get as many answers as you get people responding. Some will tell you that Stanley Kubrick is the best director who ever lived. Some might tell you Oliver Stone. Some might tell you Harold Ramis. For my part, being that I am so biased towards material that recognises there might actually be an adult in the audience (shock! horror!), I cannot go past Paul Verhoeven. The list goes on for as long as there are directors who made a hit (or even vaguely interesting) film. But when you ask people whom the worst director of all time happens to be, the pool of answers narrows down quite considerably. As I have said before, author Adonis Kyrou once wrote that one must learn to see the so-called “worst” movies, because sometimes they are sublime. Regardless of whether you think so or not, bad films have similar claims to merit as good ones. One of the most important areas in which a bad film can become meritous is by showing aspiring filmmakers of the future an example of when something is done badly.
Whilst films had been made in some form or other for around fifty years at the time that Edward D. Wood, junior began making his features, getting to see them was not nearly as easy as is the case now. Nor were they as abundant, and the “science” involved in making them was so far less developed as to invite mockery when attempting to make comparisons. So what, then, makes Wood more noteworthy than the other directors who unleashed crap upon the cinematic circuit in similar times?
The best answer to that question can be found most prominently in his first feature, Glen Or Glenda?. I will be brief about it here, as I only want to cover this simple aspect of Wood‘s filmmaking style with Glen Or Glenda?. In the case of Glen Or Glenda?, the film was intended to be a cheap exploitation piece based around a person in Hollywood who underwent a sex change operation. Before production could begin, the individual in question sold their story to the newspapers (then a far more prominent news medium than today) and thus their price for the film rights reached orbit. But producer George Weiss, bless him, decided to press on ahead with a film about sex change. But somehow, Ed Wood convinced Weiss to let him direct.
Under Wood‘s direction, Glen Or Glenda? became a confused, idiotic, but transparently impassioned plea for the acceptance of transsexuals and cross-dressers. In a 1953 film, I must hasten to add.
That, friends and neighbours, is why I will trample people in an effort to see a previously-unseen Wood film rather than lift a finger to see the latest turgid effort from Michael Bay or George Lucas. Because if one is going to make a complete fool of themselves, why do not it for a cause that one believes in? A good cause that might enrich the world, at that?
But today, I am going to talk about a film that Ed Wood made a few years after Glen Or Glenda?. This film also has themes in which Wood makes an impassioned plea about a cause he believes in. But it also shows that Wood was utterly incapable of phrasing any statement or plea in anything resembling a coherent fashion. Today, I am going to tell you about Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Before making Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wood had shot a reel or two of silent footage with his friend and idol, Béla Lugosi. Lugosi was pretty much in the terminal stages of addiction at this time, and died after the test footage was completed. Normally, the death of an actor one is planning to advertise as the main attraction in one’s film is a disaster, but Wood decided to edit a film around the existing footage and use a double for unshot scenes where Lugosi‘s character appears.
But I am getting a little ahead of myself here. The film begins with the stock standard 1950s sci-fi opening titles, set to music that leaves one unsure of whether to expect a creature feature or a 1950s equivalent of Police Academy. After the overdramatic music and credits, we get our first faceful of one of the other minor celebrities that Wood managed to con into appearing in this film. Criswell was by this point so notorious for making transparently bullshit “predictions” that what comes out of his mouth in this introductory sequence is really no more or less than what we expect from him. He begins by stating that the story he is about to tell takes place in the future, but in a daft way that could only have been penned by Wood. I quote, “…and remember, my friends. Future events such as these will affect you in the future”. Only the latter comes out more like, “future events… such as these… will affect you in the future”. Whether this weirdly mis-timed emphasis or its timings were Criswell‘s idea or Wood‘s is something lost to time now. But the next funny thing one will notice is that Criswell not only continues narrating the onscreen action, he also shifts to narrating in past tense.
As Criswell narrates and some strangely not-too-inappropriate music plays, we see Lugosi silently attend a very threadbare funeral, walk out of a house, walk off-camera, and, at least according to the narration and sound, get hit by a car. Only when we hear the car wreck sounds and the scream that was clearly dubbed by someone who is not Lugosi, Lugosi‘s shadow is still visible in the freeze-framed footage that goes on for so long that it is like Wood is daring you to notice the shadow in the lower left corner.
I am not going to give you a scene for scene recount of the entire film. It is easily available on a number of different formats, including a Blu-ray Disc that purports to contain both a colourised (blasphemy!) version and a “meticulously restored” transfer of the original black and white version. You will notice that I stated that Wood had some nobler, more idealistic motives in mind when he originally made the film. Throughout the piece, we are shown various episodic encounters between different groups of people. It is not until the final scene in which the aliens and the Humans directly meet that the whole introduction-conflict-resolution thing common to all stories is even explained.
Eros (Dudley Manlove) explains that his people and their leadership are concerned about how Humanity is edging dangerously close to discovering how to detonate particles from the sun. These, he refers to as “solarminute”, an element that if detonated could destroy everything in the universe. No real explanation is given of the physics or mechanisms by which this could possibly work. All we have is Eros’ word. Whilst I am unsure of what one Human who appears to be a football star is doing speaking for Humanity, he does put in a good word that is eerily representative of how America circa 2012 would react. “We’d be even stronger”, et cetera ad nauseum. As one commentator featured in the documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood puts it so well, this results in what distingishes Plan 9 from so many other Meet The Aliens type features. Eros does not blankly, calmly explain to the present Humans why his people are so superior and what Humanity should do, including worship him in strange ritualised manners. Nuh-uh. Eros completely blows his cool at this character’s response. “You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”, he says. Obviously, these aliens have a lot to learn about diplomacy, negotiation skills, and other things that I would consider to be quite important if I were meeting a completely alien species for the first time, regardless of how Humanoid in appearance they might be.
This pretty much ends the film, as the meeting erupts in 1959-era Z-grade violence before the Humans make their way out of the alien ship before it takes off, attempts to escape, and explodes in a storm of acting and special effects that are equally terrible. But the icing on the cake is when Criswell, during his closing narration, asks us seriously if we can prove that it did not happen.
Look, there is no way around this. Ed Wood was an incompetent and some would argue delusional filmmaker. Whilst Delores Fuller apparently took issue with the manner in which the Tim Burton biopic Ed Wood depicted her increasingly frustrated reactions to Wood‘s directorial style, one thing that is not in dispute is the manner in which he directed. First takes would be included in the final cut, even if people in front of the camera did such things as scratch themselves with their prop guns on such an angle that would blow their character’s shoulder apart if the firearm were to discharge. Yes, that really happens in the film – the previous capture shows exactly that. During this scene, the idiot in the trench coat actually says that Inspector Clay (Tor Johnson) is “dead… murdered… and somebody’s responsible”.
As is also said during the Flying Saucers Over Hollywood documentary, there are people who really try to put Ed Wood down, calling him a worthless filmmaker as opposed to just a bad filmmaker. As is also said in this documentary, bad and worthless are two different things. Whilst the 1950s are typically viewed by people looking back who were not there as a more conservative era, in socio-economic terms, they were in fact far more liberal. And in such an era, a filmmaker like Ed Wood has more room to get away with what he does.
Look, I hate to bring this up, Odin knows I have tried to avoid it, but it has to be talked about at some point. People have taken to calling such modern-day idiot filmmakers as Uwe Boll (it is pronounced “oo-vah”, as in sucks like a…) a modern day or new Ed Wood. This is false. Although Wood resorted to some highly questionable means of getting his films financed, his motivation was a love of the medium and a desire to tell stories that put forth the social consciousness he had. People like Boll cannot ever claim such things. Boll‘s films are financed solely by creative tax accounting, and are cynical exercises in shovelling out garbage in order to make money from what the money-men view as suckers. If laws protecting people from slander or libel were enforced more strictly, people would in court every time they compared Boll to Wood or vice versa.
You may have also noticed I mentioned a biopic of Ed Wood by Tim Burton that was titled, oddly enough, Ed Wood. If you have yet to see any of Ed Wood‘s films or the biopic, then the biopic might be the best place to start. Although there are innaccuracies abound (Tor Johnson‘s children were fully-grown at the time Plan 9 From Outer Space was made, for example), it is still one of the better biopics one can find floating around. It was clearly made with a love and reverence for its subject and his work, which is not often the case with those who are posthumously famous for outsider art.
Plan 9 From Outer Space also marks the last time that Ed Wood‘s films really got any exposure to mainstream audiences, such as they were in the late 1950s. Up until semi-recently, when the DVD-Video format found itself in increasing demand with a shortage of material of sufficient quality to meet it, Wood‘s work was all but forgotten. When I originally purchased a rather poor-quality cheapie DVD of Plan 9 From Outer Space, almost nobody I spoke with amongst acquaintences in Western Sydney had any idea who the hell Ed Wood was. Now one only need to mention him or one of the titles of his films (there are three in particular that people easily recognise, and Plan 9 is one of them). Although it remains to be seen whether the quality of home video formats will edge closer and closer to the true quality of 35mm film, one thing is for sure. We owe it to ourselves to remind the film business and the modern-day studio system that we, the living adults of this world, desire variety, uniqueness, and diversity, in what we watch.
Get out there and watch Plan 9 From Outer Space if you have not done so already. Now.