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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In today's upside-down world Tiger Woods is kitsch and Ed Wood is scholarship

The following column originally ran in the Dec. 28, 2009, Standard-Examiner.

By Doug Gibson

It really annoys me that golfer Tiger Woods has become a scandal item. For so long he seemed the perfect, respectful, graceful, honorable role model. And instead he's off tomcatting like the stereotypical frat boy in a bad R-rated movie.

But Woods is just one in a long line of the respectable who go bad. Look at politics. What a consistent mine for scandal is found there: Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, Larry Craig, Barney Frank, Tom Foley, David Vitter, the late Ted Kennedy ... all these are lawmakers who have been caught in sex scandals.

Scandal has been around forever, but for a long time we didn't have several cable channels and more Web sites devoted to wallowing in it. The more respectable the person was before being dragged into the tabloid media muck, the bigger the catch.

But I've wondered, if Tiger Woods becomes kitsch, is it possible for kitsch to rise to scholarship? Is that a future byproduct of our scandal world? Will there soon be higher education courses on the Tiger Woods' affairs and their effect on relationships between whites and African-Americans?

As bizarre as that sounds, anyone who has perused some university course books might not be surprised to see such a class.

Although he never was a politician or a sports star, no one better embodied kitsch than Ed Wood. The transvestite filmmaker made some very interesting "bad" films, such as "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Glen Or Glenda." He also wrote more than 100 novels. An alcoholic, he eventually drifted into porn writing and filmmaking and died homeless. The kitsch of his films created a cult that at first was smarmy but gravitated to a respect for his imagination, if not his talents.

In 1993, Tim Burton made a romanticized version of Wood's life called "Ed Wood." The movie resulted in the re-publication of a few of Wood's long-gone novels. The eventual result of the film has been a very slow but solid shift in how Wood is perceived. The much-maligned man associated with such films as "Night of the Ghouls" is suddenly a subject of scholarship.

Granted, Wood's cult has decreased as his more smarmy fans aren't interested in literary criticism on the filmmaker, but the remaining fans are more apt to discuss Wood in the same breath with Luis Bunuel or "Waiting for Godot."

To be honest, if Wood were alive today he'd probably ask them what the hell they were talking about, but don't be surprised if you peruse a college course book and see a film class devoted to Wood. The new book, "Ed Wood -- Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films," by Rob Craig (McFarland Press, at www.mcfarlandpub.com), will certainly audition as a text.

The book, which reached my journalist's desk recently, is fascinating reading if you are a Wood fan -- I am -- and pretty dense reading if you are not, or if your exposure to Wood is limited to Burton's film or "Plan 9 From Outer Space" Or "Glen Or Glenda." Its main interest is that it's real, scholarly literary and film criticism of Wood's work. Some of us have waited decades for a book like this.

Having said that, Craig's observations are hit and miss. The strongest part of "Ed Wood: Mad Genius" is Craig's assertion that many of the absurdities in Wood's films, such as night being day and vice versa, ridiculous dialogue and threadbare sets that remind of improv theater, are actually examples of Brechtian theater, and attempts to convince the audience to accept the alternate reality, or alternate world, in which his film exists.

Although it's easy to scoff at this and call it pseudoscholarship, even the most smarmy Wood watcher will admit that his films are unique. No one-lung director or producer ever made films as interesting as Wood did.

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.

To sum up, if you are a Wood fan or really want to know more about Wood, "Ed Wood: Mad Genius" is worth reading. If not, rent Burton's "Ed Wood" and get to know a quirky, likeable guy.

In any event, let's just enjoy the irony of our popular culture allowing Tiger Woods to sink to the level of Paris Hilton while Ed Wood rises to the level of Luis Bunuel. That's America.

1 comment:

Ted said...

Eh. This book seems more than a day late and a dollar short. I'll read it with the interest I have in UFOs, the George Reeves death, and chemtrails. I'm not at all sure of the sturdiness of the thesis, that Ed Wood is now more a target of examination than, say, in the day (which was now about 20 years ago!) As for interpreting the day/night descrepencies as Brechtian... oy. The same problem crops up in mainstream films for the same reason-- when the film(s) was printed, the printer did not stop the exposure down on the day-for-night shots. Ain't no big artistic deal. ;)