“Pool the Strings!”

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

So I’m surfing channels and find my favorite movie, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, on some cable channel. I find myself unable to resist. It’s unedited, too – Martin Landua’s Bela Lugosi gets to call Boris Karloff a limey cocksucker and everything. This movie has become my absolute favorite in recent months, surpassing such stalwarts of my pantheon as Repo Man and Silence of the Lambs. I consider this Johnny Depp’s finest performance yet, as well as Martin Landau’s most memorable role (with the possible exception of his Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible). Landau won the Best Supporting Oscar for this role, and deservedly so.

This movie has so many memorable lines, which I recite to the best of my ability whenever I watch this fucker. The quintessential line has Ed Wood on the phone with a major movie executive, discussing Glen or Glenda: “It was the worst movie you ever saw. Well, my next one will be better!” Or Lugosi’s line from Bride of the Monster: “Home? I have no home. Hunted, despised, living like an animal! The jungle is my home.” And of course, anything involving Lugosi cursing up a storm in his thick Hungarian accent.

And yet…

One observation from the commentary track on the DVD sticks in my head: the writers of the movie explain that all the requests made to Ed Wood by the “villains” in the movie (especially his girlfriend Dolores and the church elders who finance Plan 9) are actually quite reasonable and would make his films better… and yet we root for Ed Wood to do things his way, we want his vision to be as undiluted as possible.

And I’m one of those who roots for Ed Wood to do things the way he likes, no matter how insane or inane it seems. It’s not a gimmick or conceit, it’s the very heart of the film and its thematic core.

However, this isn’t very typical of me. If anything, I hate the idea of artistic sensibilities trumping commercial concerns – pragmatically speaking, an artist should either work on his own terms and accept the consequences, or play ball with the system and accept the consequences. If the artist can find someone who will finance his project without asking for any changes, good for him. Enjoy it while you can. (Woody Allen did for a long time, slowly driving his career into the ground.) More often than not, however, if an artist does find a backer of some sort, he will be asked to consider commercial concerns that may impinge on his art. And for an artist to demand that his work be supported commercially and then dismiss the commercial considerations asked of him, strikes me as the height of arrogance and a vicious example of biting the hand that feeds you.

More than that, I believe that the creative process isn’t some high-flown, abstract pursuit of some capital-t Truth that the unwashed masses are too dumb to see on their own. Sometimes it seem that there are too many examples of artists as tortured, misunderstood individuals with sudden bursts of Insight. That vision of creativity is simply egotism looking for its own justification.

What’s closer to the truth is art as actual work, as setting your nose to the grindstone and honing your craft as well as your vision, as long tedious hours trying to get something right. To me, that’s a more noble view of the creative spirit, less about the egotism and more about the process. Examples of good movies about art and creativity are Misery, Shakespeare in Love, Secret Window (which is actually a great film about not being creative), and Basquiat. That last example seems to be about the beautiful, inspired vision of the titular artist, but I’d argue that it actually considers Basquiat’s egotism and inability to play ball in the high-stakes world of the New York art scene as contributing factors to his demise… in effect, he was a stupid self-destructive genius, and was portrayed as such.

So back to Ed Wood. Here’s a movie about someone pursuing his own vision and refusing to back down to anyone else’s demands. So why do I find it so compelling, why don’t I root against his willful behavior? Well…

He does back down, when it suits him. Ed Wood actually tries to play ball as much as he can, changing the titles of his movies and casting the friends of financiers – or the financier herself, as when he gave his girlfriend’s role to a woman he thought was rich. He complains about such compromises with Orson Welles at the movie’s thematic climax, but he’ll do anything to make his movies, including compromise. The important thing is the movie itself, not his ego.

He never stops trying. Ed Wood is persistent and always optimistic, which I’m sure is Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s own contrivance (as well as that of the screenwriters), but there’s a can-do attitude that makes you believe he’s earned whatever artistic freedom he can scrape together.

He just wants to make movies. The traditional visionary artist is concerned with an elevated quality, a refined level of accomplishment. Not the case with Ed Wood. In one scene, Ed Wood laments, “I just want to tell stories about things that interest me.” That includes monsters, aliens, and cross-dressing. He had a very populist taste – or at the very least, very geeky tastes – and this is what he wants to share with the world. Further, his moviemaking methodology is rather… lax. He films only one take of each scene, making me think of another comment from the DVD, that Ed Wood is more enamored with the glamor and process of film-making than with the quality of the film. It’s like a child playing make-believe, but wanting the results of his make-believe to be shared with the world.

The man is obviously cracked. No, really. Johnny Depp’s performance is a simmering stew of tics and quirks, and it’s hilarious to watch him and his traveling circus of fellow weirdos and incompetents. The supporting cast helps create a sense of family, but this only expands the film’s vision of a world of outsiders trying to do things on their own terms. After all, the true love story in the film – and not in the romantic, homosexual sense – is between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, who provide so much companionship and help for one another, despite all the flaws others see in both of them.

Keep in mind, all these comments are about Ed Wood the character in Ed Wood the movie. I can’t say anything about Ed Wood the actual historical figure, or his films. (I’ve seen Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, but that was many years ago and I have no interest in seeing them again.) From my understanding, things didn’t go too well for him in reality, but that’s beside the point here: Ed Wood the movie is about a certain creative perspective, a vision of the world that should be treasured…

… And perhaps, kept some distance from. Because, you know, such a fucked-up cockamamied vision could be contagious.