Sunday, September 8, 2013

Book review of Ed Wood, Mad Genius

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, 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.

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