4.20.2011

In praise of Ed Wood


I have to confess that until now I had never before seen the entirety of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), often said to be the Worst Movie Ever Made (though more recent fare such as Manos, the Hands of Fate [1966] and Troll 2 [1989] have also laid claim to that title).  I owned a VHS copy (by Goodtime Video) in the late ’90s but I was never able to get through all 78 of the film’s minutes, so I figured the time had come to see the whole thing.  And I have to say: Plan 9 is so dang charming in its badness, so banal in its amateurishness, that it feels almost disappointing.  (Latter-day cult classics like Troll 2 or Tommy Wiseau's The Room [2003], meanwhile, seem baroque and surrealistic, even somehow aggressively bad, by comparison.)  Perhaps we have gotten more used to badness in films—we need worse and worse ones to impress (or depress) us.

That said, I love what Plan 9 from Outer Space and its legendary auteur, Ed Wood, stand for: a certain aesthetic of cheapness, resourcefulness, and creative energy.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to try and argue that Plan 9 is actually a good movie--it is indeed “objectively bad” (J. Hoberman’s term) on every level.  The acting is dumb.  The sets have been cut out of cardboard, and it shows.  The “special effects”—tin foil UFOs floating over projected backdrops—are laughable.  It would be painful to try to mine this film for subtext because to do so would be to assume that there’s enough there to be mined.  The film is undeniably dumb, and its cult reputation has rested, justifiably, on that undeniable, inexcusable dumbness.

And yet…in his essay “Bad Movies,” Hoberman writes about Oscar Micheaux, another pioneer of “objectively bad” films, but ones that are so bizarrely and incompetently made that they become, in their own way, fascinating.  Hoberman approvingly calls Wood “a toadstool at the edge of Hollywood, nourished by the movie industry’s compost” (and Plan 9 proudly, or ironically, announces that it was made in “Hollywood, U.S.A.”), and claims that Micheaux's films “are so devastatingly bad that he can only be considered alongside Georges Melies, D.W. Griffith, Dziga Vertov, Stan Brakhage, and Jean-Luc Godard as one of the medium's major formal innovators.”  So I love Plan 9 for its very outsider-ness, its shabby attempt to be a Hollywood sci-fi movie at the same time that it cheerfully threw the rules of Hollywood filmmaking—realism, continuity editing, good acting, etc.—out the window.  Wood stands not only for badness (and for the pleasures of bad movies) but also for a certain strain of American independent cinema to be taken up by John Waters, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and Todd Haynes, people working on zero-budget projects and turning their own limitations into creative inspiration.  In his cobbling films together out of cardboard, stock footage, non-actors and Hollywood’s leftovers, Wood is perhaps the patron saint—or the prototype—of the independent filmmaker.

2 comments:

  1. I read not too long ago that The Room had been written straight, but not finding anyone to produce it, Wiseau decided to, as you put it, aggressively make a bad movie.

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  2. I find that hard to believe. Have you *seen* The Room, or any interviews with Wiseau? He sounds like he was pretty sincere.

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