Ed Wood

(USA - 1994)

by James Cobo

Cast: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, G.D. Spradlin, Vincent D'Onofrio, Bill Murray
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski from the book Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey
Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky
Composer: Howard Shore
Runtime: 127 minutes

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Ed Wood is not a classic or great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I'd still hold it up as an ideal for what a post-Scorsese Hollywood film should be. Put simply, Ed Wood knows that its intellectual value is defined by the fact that it's a movie and develops from there, as compared to the insecure pretensions of many of its contemporaries. Ed Wood is a pulp movie about a pulp movie maker and it makes no bones about it, and once you accept that, all sorts of truths come flooding at you from all directions.

In the pantheon of things that I wish I'd said, J. Hoberman's description of Ed Wood as an accidental avant-gardist ranks near the top. It's incredibly true; even though I don't particularly enjoy watching his movies, it's evident from the first frame of an Ed Wood film that what you are about to see is cinema relayed in exasperatingly unconventional terms. Ed Wood introduced the idea that shit can be charming, liberating Hollywood filmmakers for - likely - generations to come of the notion that they need to conform to the idea of spectacle.

This is the basic thrust of what makes Ed Woodthe film work. The film plays with semantics slightly (Wood is portrayed less as an avant-gardist than as an auteur) but the truth is still evident; early on, during the staging of one of Wood's plays, an angel is lowered from the rafters and offers two soldiers "the dove of peace" while Wood mouths the lines along with her, starry-eyed at the power of his creation. This kind of naked representation becomes Wood's modus operandi, as throughout the course of the film he removes barriers typically enforced by the Hollywood system - financing, set design, the star system, the literal act of shooting a film - whenever they obstruct his conveyence of his point. Throughout the film, Wood holds himself up against Orson Welles, but given Wood's attendence to his vision, this could just as easily have been a movie where Welles compares himself to Wood if history had played out differently.

But the film's genius doesn't lie so much in its content as in its presentation. The great Hollywood movies made after the advent of the blockbuster model can be identified by how skillfully they are able to balance tantalizing the audience and pushing them away; Raging Bull, for instance, promises kinetics and physical poetry, but forces you to endure sharing two painfully precise hours with one of the most worthless human beings ever captured on film, and Pulp Fiction pulls a gleefully accurate portrait of life in the postmodern age out of a hat with the left hand while the right distracts you with pop culture references and genre conventions. Ed Wood doesn't match up to either of those successes, but it's got the same parents. Rather than see Wood evolve as a subject, the film presents Wood as a character in a film. There's a world of difference between those two approaches, as anyone who sat through Pollack can surely tell you. The subject of a biopic is frequently afforded so much reverence that the movie becomes less about the artist than about the filmmaker's love for the artist. By treating Wood as a character, the audience is actually permitted to react to Wood and imagine his having a trajectory and, having noticed this, start to pick out where that path leads.

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It's a uniquely filmic approach, and more importantly it's motivated by the demands of the script. Most contemporary Hollywood art movies - the Adaptations and the Punch-Drunk Loves - are overburdened with uniquely filmic touches that frankly don't mean a goddamn thing about either the art of filmmaking or the subject of the movie, but rather exist only because the filmmaker apparently wants to play around with his cinematic Erector Set. It's motion in a void, a frustratingly artless attempt at artistry, and stacked up against quiet brilliance like that present in Ed Wood, only shows its futility. Adaptation collapses time in ways which are several orders of magnitude more skillful, but because the reasoning behind the collapsing is apparently "look what I can show you", I got intensely bored. Ed Wood rolled out the old storytelling tropes, put them in a new order, added a few elements of realism here and there to reiterate the connection between the world of the film and the audience, and I couldn't look away.

Of course, there are external personal factors playing into how I watched both movies. I am, for one, fascinated by the process in which Hollywood transforms elements of real life into entertainment, and in that respect Ed Wood is fairly high up there on the list of similar movies. Ed Wood actually presents a lot of information, even if the information initially invites more knee-jerk recognition than critical reflection; Wood really was a cross-dresser in real life, and he really did hire someone to walk around with a cape over half their face after Bela Lugosi died, and so on. I am also, for obvious reasons, fascinated by movies which wrestle with the concept of what movies are (probably another reason why I didn't care much for Adaptation). Obviously, Ed Wood speaks nakedly to both of these predispositions, and an awful lot of my enjoyment of the movie came from me picking up on instances where I was being directly addressed. But due to the efforts of the film to establish Wood as a character instead of as a Real Human Person, I was able to enjoy the moments of intellectual distraction without the threat of missing out on The Big Moment that comprises most other biopics.

In practice, of course, that's part of the appeal of the film and its subject. Ed Wood the film actively forces you to confront abstraction by virtue of its cartoonish characters, its esoteric subject matter, and its black-and-white aesthetic (characterized by Rudolph Arnheim as the absence of realism), while Ed Wood the director forces you to acknowledge the abstract nature of the power of film itself by virtue of graves toppling over or unintelligible dialogue delivered by Tor Johnson. The principle enjoyment is that of looking at the film product in an effort to pick up on a bit of trivia here or a ridiculous line there, and in the clarity of the film's purpose in spite of the diversions. In fact, it can be argued that the major failing of Ed Wood is that it doesn't provide enough of these diversions; while it's fun to watch Wood go about constructing his work, at times Tim Burton goes overboard with the distancing mechanism, and the film feels like any other 90's biopic. It's most obvious early on in the movie, as Wood is being primarily introduced as a character defined by his idiosyncracies - his cross-dressing, false teeth, etc. - and grows less evident as the film progresses and Wood's psychology begins bubbling to the surface rather than be poured down your throat. The fun of the approach is that the audience gets to discover these things by themselves, and whenever the director makes it obvious that You Need To Look At This, the dull hammer-swing of intent shatters the illusion of effortlessness.

The notion that the audience wants to be momentarily distracted is, of course, the major link between Wood and Tim Burton. Burton's career has been marked by efforts to show the audience a lot of stuff, ordered in a very specific way to force the audience to confront it in ways they ordinarily wouldn't. What separates him from the Richard Linklaters of this world and guarantees him a big-money meal-ticket is his faith in narrative as a beautiful framework, an essential element of filmmaking that, probably directly as a result of his Ed Wood-worship, can be streamlined aesthetically whenever it suits the subject. If I had the inclination to watch more of Wood's movies, it'd probably be pretty easy to draw up a number of striking stylistic paralells between he and Burton (and I'm sure that plenty of critics already have), especially outside of this movie and Wood's more famous films.

But that seems to me to be missing the forest for the trees. The real appeal of Burton's hand in Ed Wood is the quiet execution of the same principle of Hoberman's description of Wood. Burton is, more than anyone alive today, an accidental artist, one who resorts to visual tropes without a second thought to how it impacts the overall film and occasionally gets lucky. The understanding I have for Burton's admiration of Wood is entirely due to the fact that I fell head over heels in love with Mars Attacks!, the kind of exuberant, vital mess that couldn't have possibly been made on purpose. Mars Attacks throws untempered diaspora in your face and dares you to maintain the incredible amount of energy necessary to process as much of it as you can. Ed Wood feels to me like an ode to Burton finding that same defiant textual weight in Wood's film, and celebrating the master by justifying his work after the fact. The fact that Wood idolizes Orson Welles, himself an author of a formidably confrontational Hollywood film text or two, is a brilliant work of structuring the story and ices the cake quite nicely.

Ed Wood isn't the noblest movie ever made; on a personal level, it's just one director's ode to his forefathers, and on a textual level, it's Hollywood celebrating its own capacity for artistry. But a movie's worth isn't defined by the degree to which it changes the world or unveils the face of God, but rather by the degree that it accomplishes something. At one point in the film, Wood exclaims "Filmmaking is not about the little details. It's all about the big picture!" and for a brief moment, even as I felt the sensation passing, I ached to see all of his movies just to see how they matched up to that mission statement, and in sitting down for a few hours to write this review I'm filled with the same urgency to watch all of Burton's and Welles' movies to see how they do. Ed Wood may never have made a good movie in his life, and the film Ed Wood may not be a classic or even great, but together, they present a fascinating theory that's going to require some serious meditation. The fact that the theory happened in spite of the theorists' capabilities...well, you do the math.


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