Saturday Night At The Movies: Still Sick, Still Surveying Spooky Cinema

I'm sure it's still considered cool to shit on Ed Wood's movies, but the man had his undeniable moments of grace: The first shot of zombie Tor Johnson rising out of his grave in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE is the kind of moment that would still scare old women and children and make rational adults uneasy today if the film before it was as effective as that shot is.

My headache is still too strong for me to hammer this thought into a better shape, but I think there's some class/money distinction that fuels the Wood hate, at least its first generation or two before "Ed Wood Made The Worst Movies Ever Made" joined "CITIZEN KANE Is The Greatest Movie Ever" and "CASABLANCA Is Not Just A Well-Made Romantic Weepie" as cinematic fact. Wood may very well have been an incompetent filmmaker, but money can cover and fix many a failure in competence.

Wood takes a lot of criticism for being a one-take wonder, but it seems to me that his movies suffer more from a lack of coverage than the mistakes in a given shot. More times than not, what makes me wince and/or laugh is the shot that doesn't belong in the flow of a scene but is probably there because Wood literally had no other piece of film to [mis-]match shots.

As a writer, Wood's brain was probably bigger than his eyes; non-literary science fiction is almost defined by improbably cosmic ideas and dialogue no human being would or even could speak [see also: Jack Kirby, George Lucas, H.G. Wells, everyone else -- you cite an example of sci-fi with natualistic dialogue, I'll call you a whore-fucking liarpants], but the delta between Wood's ideas and his budgets was so wide it was profoundly foolish of him to pursue them with such gusto. The American audience can easily forgive a filmmaker's lack of enthusiasm but not a lack of budget.

We should all be a little sad that the lesson most people take away from Ed Wood's life and career [especially the assholes who program and produce film festivals] isn't that you shouldn't let your financial situation and lack of significant institutional/professional support from pursuing your art and passion.

One of my many examples of how film festivals are all programmed by failed filmmakers is that not one of the festivals that revel in/exploit Wood's legacy with new films actually take up the challenges he faced: For example, in PLAN 9, Wood had three weeks and four days shooting time and a total budget of about $450,000 in 2010 dollars, a half-reel's worth of shots of a now-dead lead actor and the need to write/produce/direct a feature-length horror/sci-fi story that wouldn't offend a Baptist congregation too deeply. No filmmaker would dare it, but there are at least two Wood-themed fests where random fuckwits make intentionally bad short movies to celebrate Wood's legacy.

Ed Wood's movies are bad but no worse than any other B-movie of that period -- isn't it funny how so many of the movies dismissed as turkeys were made outside the studio system by creators in no position to make life difficult for the tastemakers [see virtually every first movie made by the Film School Generation for Roger Corman's production company; turkeys one and all] -- few of which have the passionate, genuinely unique signature that Wood gave to his movies.


Alan said...

You're right and wrong. Corman's "film school" pictures, except Scorsese's excecrable Boxcar Bertha, are uniformally very good and serve as examples of how to make solid pictures on Ed Wood sized budgets. The ones he directed (Bucket of Blood" among them) are even better. Ed Wood is underrated. He has the author's voice. But don't kid yourself, he's no Sam Fuller. Or Roger Corman.

Dig the blog's new look, man.

Milo George said...

hey alan,

BUCKET OF BLOOD came off as listless and telegraphed; it's bad when even a film nerd checks to see how much of a movie is left before its halfway point, isn't it?

Have you seen SWAMP WOMEN, BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES or any of Corman's Westerns lately? I like a lot of his movies, but he was a middling, journeyman schlockmaker in the '50s and a master but still imprimatur-less schlockmaker in the late '60s; in-between he made some genuinely solid movies, but how much is that improvement due to him having more time and money? Prior to THE HOUSE OF USHER, Corman was cranking out two B&W programmers at a time to release as double-features, but then American International Pictures allowed him to pool the budgets to make "prestige" pictures, mostly shot in CinemaScope and EastmanColor. He still hacked it out; I could be wrong, but it always looked to me like every one of his Poe movies ended with the same house burning down.

Regardless, Corman had consistent support from AIP from day one; if nothing else, that he had a working relationship with a real prodco and not random goofballs with money and no clue how to make a movie. AIP certainly couldn't have been as helpful as, say George Schaefer's RKO paying Orson Welles a full salary to watch STAGECOACH over and over with various technicians to learn how to make a movie, but Corman got much more from AIP than Wood ever got from any of his backers.


Milo George said...

Oh, and I thought about bringing in Sam Fuller, as a fellow B-movie auteur who also had almost ludicrously stylized dialogue, but Fuller was so fully consumed by his creative world [and he never worked in the much more expensive horror/fantasy/sci-fi genres] that his movies are more or less unaffected by who bankrolled them. Fuller made great indies, terrible indies, great studio movies and terrible ones, but his out-and-out atrocious indies of his lost years never got or gets held up for ridicule because no one ever sees them. Make a failed gangster indie back then, it disappeared; make a bad sci-fi indie, it gets regular rotation in The Late Late Show and Creature Feature-type TV packages across the country until everyone can draw your monster from memory. Fuller was a superior artist to Wood in every way, regardless.