Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Book review: Ed Wood, Mad Genius

Review by Doug Gibson
(Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films, by Rob Craig, 2009, McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 306 pages, and (800) 253-2187. The reviewer received a review copy from McFarland.)
Although some fans of Ed Wood may take issue with me, I think Woodmania has gone through four distinct phases:
The first was the "tiny cult" phase, as Wood fan Fred Olen Ray described it. This was the pre-Medved era, where small groups of fans would stay up late to watch "Bride of the Monster" or "Plan 9 From Outer Space" on Movies 'till Dawn. On NYC's 42nd Street, Wood's mysteriously delirious "Glen Or Glenda" would play at midnight on the weekends to surprisingly full houses. This is where Wood pop biographer Rudolph Grey first witnessed a Wood film. I myself first caught Wood's "Plan 9 From Outer Space" on LA's Channel 9's Movies Till Dawn about 30 years ago. It was followed by "The Creeping Terror." (What a delightful double feature!)
The second Woodmania phase was the early '80s Medved-inspired "Golden Turkey Awards" smarmy hysteria, which lifted Ed Wood into the pop culture consciousness. Wood became famous, but his films were mocked with deliberate glee. "Bad" film festivals featuring Wood films popped up everywhere. Long-forgotten Wood associates such as Vampira, Conrad Brooks, and Paul Marco were lifted out of obscurity and into second careers. Wealthy Wood fan Wade Williams paid a long overdue editing lab bill and rescued Wood's "lost" film "Night of the Ghouls" from probable destruction. There were a few perceptive critics, such as Danny Peary, author of Cult Films, who saw more than just easy-to-mock foolishness in Wood's films during this time, but most of us laughed at Wood, and the early documentaries on his life, such as "The Incredibly Strange Film Show," were mostly condescending and disrespectful.
The third Woodian phase occurred in the 1990s and lasted into the early years of the new century. It was the Wood-as-tragedy era and it included Grey's respectful oral biography, "Nightmare of Ecstasy," There were also the much-celebrated Tim Burton film, "Ed Wood," and two feature-length film documentaries on "Plan 9" and Wood's career, Web sites that celebrated Wood's work sprang up, and there was the emergence of a tiny film journal, "Cult Movies Magazine," that treated Wood with genuine respect. Also, small printing presses, such as Four Walls Eight Windows, began to re-print Wood's pulp novels from the '60s. You could actually go into a Barnes & Noble and buy "Death of a Tranvestite." That era faded away; Wood's novels left bookstores and Cult Movies Magazine folded. But Wood's cult remained strong enough to survive.
And that brings us to the fourth and current phase of Woodmania -- Ed Wood-as-literary-and-film-criticism fodder. Yes, it's true -- Wood's work is of interest to the learned. Rob Craig's "Ed Wood: Mad Genius" is an extremely detailed and provocative academic criticism of just about all of Wood's film work, whether, director, writer or adviser, the author is able to track down. It's a fascinating read for Woodphiles, but I wouldn't recommend it for Wood beginners. The book can be very ponderous at times. It defines dreary academic prose at times. Due to its depth, though, I wouldn't be surprised if "Ed Wood: Mad Genius" makes it onto the reading list in institutes of higher learnings' film studies classes.
Truth be told, there's a lot of academic folly in "Ed Wood: Mad Genius." It's tough to swallow Craig's claims that Wood's low porno is full of deliberate jabs against male-female relationships. The sad truth is Wood's porno efforts were only concerned with meeting male sexual fantasies. There's nothing to deconstruct. The actors have no clothes. And the book veers into silliness with its claims that "Plan 9" heroine "Paula Trent" is coyly suggesting to her worried, sexist pilot husband "Jeff" that she may engage in adultery or masturbation while he's gone flying in the "wild blue yonder."
But literary and film criticism are full of "throw-every-theory-in-including-the-kitchen-sink" approaches. The Wood fan who plows through the denser parts will encounter observations on Wood's films that are fascinating, unique and indeed, at times on-target. Take "Glen Or Glenda," for example. Craig accurately cites it as Wood's most personal/political film, but he also draws comparisons on psychiatrist Carl Jung's theories of the destructive conflict that can arise when the inner self competes with the outer self. That is at the heart of "Glen's" dilemma with fiance "Barbara." Through Wood's film and a comparison of his early years, Craig also presents a good case that the film is a harsh criticism of Wood's mother for raising him to prefer women's clothing.
Critic Peary opined that Wood made his films so ridiculous as a means to mask his provocative personal and political statements that were really too extreme for the conservative 1950s. If his films were more understandable, Peary argued, they'd never get shown. Take "Plan 9," which Peary saw as a brave critique of the 1950s U.S. military buildup. But Craig interestingly takes that theory a step further and argues that Wood used many of the tactics of minimalist director/producer Bertolt Brecht. The ridiculous special effects and sets in films such as "Plan 9," "Jail Bait," "Bride of the Monster," and "Night of the Ghouls," may have had a lot more thought attached to them than we previously thought. They unconsciously create a believable scenario for the audience through the surrealistic, almost agitprop-like sets. The bizarre dialogue of a Wood film creates a dream-like state -- almost a dream world, unique to the viewer.
Rather than be considered a joke, Wood is closer to a Luis Bunuel in his ability to suspend our normal world and draw us into a cinematic other-world for an hour and a half.
Craig makes a strong case that Wood used the absurdity of Brechtian theater to seduce the audience into accepting his alternate reality that was on the screen. Wood's characters, the dolt Kelton the Cop, the drunk in the police station, Lobo the monster, the military men in "Plan 9," etc., the dysfunctional nuclear family, existed in their own world or time, separate from our realities. There's never a clear evidence in a Wood film where something is occurring, or even if it is occurring in our world. If we take these Brechtian ideas, Craig argues, it's easy to accept that night and day intermix so often in Plan 9, or that a photo enlarger in "Bride" can be an atomic growth machine, or that the very, very low-budget, slapped together "Night of the Ghouls" can be as fascinating as "Waiting for Godot" in its bewildering minimalism.
There are other examples of the singular, alternative universe of a Wood film. Until reading Craig's book, I had not realized that Wood's "Jail Bait" occurs only at night, or that Wood's "The Sinister Urge" has detectives who both rail against and obsessively look at the criminal pornography. We need to watch these films more than once to notice this, or to note that "Plan 9" has a lot of dialogue that bravely attacks the popular 50s conservative military buildup jargon. For all his slapdash, low-budget, one-lung procedures, Wood, Craig argues, deliberately created a different world for his viewers, no matter how pitifully few were in theater audiences when his films were released. This alternative universe, mixed with the provocative ideals espoused in the cross-dressing "Glen Or Glenda" or bizarre sci-fi tale "Plan 9," guaranteed that a long-time, never-ending Wood cult would eventually form and not go away. How could it? His film are pleasant narcotics for his devotees.
Indeed, the strongest argument for Craig's alternate universe theory is the iron hold Wood's films have on viewers 50-plus years later. Other low-budget sci-fi horror hodgepodges of the 50s don't have this hold, no matter if they are occasionally watched fondly by genre fans. Ten minutes of "Bride of the Monster," that Craig accurately pegs as an homage to the Bela Lugosi Monogram films of the 1940s, are more interesting than any film Roger Corman ever directed.
That's simply a fact.
While reviewing this book, I watched six Wood films, "Glen," "Jail Bait," "Bride," Plan 9, " "Night of..." and "Sinister Urge." I noted the critiques of Craig, and I witnessed many of his observations in "Ed Wood, Mad Genius." Craig's book, which throws in hundreds of critical theories, some wild, some sound, regarding Wood, his movies and screenplays, (the book is very thorough) is worth having because it offers unique, important ideas about Wood that are new ideas.
The truth is we have not plumbed the depths of our Ed Wood obsession. There is a new criticism book of his novels and short stories, "Muddled Mind," that has been published. There's room for more critiques of Wood, and Craig is right in saying that despite Grey's very interesting oral bio of the director (1924-1978) we are still waiting for a definitive biography of Wood.

1 comment:

RudiZink said...

Great Writeup, Mr. Gibson. Your essay goes far beyond a simple book review, of course, but also delves into psychological issues, film history, studio and film distributor machinations and many other factors revolving around the embracement in American culture of your topic of choice... cult films.

For my own part, I'm delighted to see you focusing your attention on Ed Wood, one of the most enigmatic and yet influential cult film producers in American film history.

I'm hoping you'll install an link in your sidebar, so I can conveniently buy this book, without dunning my local bookstore to order a copy.

It's great to see you emerging, by the way, as a knowledgeable commentator on one film genre that's especially near and dear to my heart... American cult films.