Thursday, March 17, 2011

Glen or Glenda

Is Ed Wood’s “Glen or Glenda” good or bad ?

Well, if you think the answer’s easy, you haven’t seen this one as much as I do! Which is probably far too much.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about at all, allow me to present the curious case of Edward Wood Jr.

Ed Wood has been nicknamed the worst film maker of all times, and its wacky masterpiece, “Plan 9 from outer space”, the worst movie ever. Of course, it’s not true. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of “so-bad-it’s-good” movies, and a lot of “plain-awful-bad” movies, and there are far worse directors than good ole Edward Junior, and far worse movies than the mightily cheap “Plan 9”. It’s not that “Plan 9” is a good movie, mind you. Boy no. It’s bad!! It’s really awful!!! But it’ also damn entertaining and full of misguided poetry and morbid imagination. It’s surely cheap and badly done, but like Tim Burton’s biopic reminds us, it’s also a real film d’auteur, the uncompromised vision of a man. The man was flawed and the movie sure is too. That may not be Citizen Kane, but it’s got far more soul than most “serious” films out there.

But let’s go back to “Glen or Glenda”.

This is the story of Glen. He’s straight, he’s got a beautiful wife and he can’t help dressing like a woman. This puts Glen in a somewhat awkward position vis-à-vis the rest of the social world.
We see Glen walking down the streets in full glamour attire, we see a doctor lecturing us on the relativity of morals.

Oh, and we also see the Devil, people maniacally laughing at the camera, voluptuous dancers, girls getting whipped on a couch in the middle of a dark, empty rooms, we see mayhem and destruction, nursery rhymes, stock footage of trampling bulls…

And Bela Lugosi.

I know most of his lines by heart. He’s the puppet master, you see. He lives outside the film and probably outside of sanity, in a XIXth century room full of books and skeletons, making chemical experiments with an evil grin and generally observing with amused détachement the vagaries of the world.

The film begins with Lugosi, and he’s the thread that sorts of tie the whole mess together conceptually.

It goes like this (from memory) : the bottom half of the screen shows stock footage of a busy American street, the top half shows Bela Lugosi. He’s watching the bottom half with a smile, and says in a wonderfully slow and Slav voice : “People... all going somewhere... all with their own thoughts... their own ideas... all with their own personalities”. Video of bulls running. Lightning. Lugosi’s face, lit from below by a stark white expressionist light, his face contorting with a disturbing blend of giddiness, disgust and puzzlement : “Beware! Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys... Puppy dog tails, and BIG FAT SNAILS... Beware... Take care... Beware!”. And so on…

Why, you ask, why? How should I know? I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of bizarre sexual innuendo, but how is it related to the rest of the movie, and what’s the meaning of all the weird dreamlike action?

Who cares? It’s a flow of consciousness thing. Ed Wood is basically throwing at us every weird picture he can think of.

You don’t really question why there’s a couple of old loons the size of action figures on the floor in a David Lynch movie, do you? Or the crazy imagery of any dream or hallucination or madness scene in any other movie?

Why must Ed Wood’s movie be treated differently? If the answer is : because we all know he’s the worst director of all times and we’re supposed to make fun of his films, then you’re probably the kind of person who blabbers “goffer” like a Pavlov’s dog whenever “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is mentioned.

“Glen or Glenda” is a movie about isolation.

There’s a voice-over narrator (Ed himself) who says : “The world is a strange place to live in. All those cars. All going someplace. All carrying humans, which are carrying out their lives”.
The man who utters these words is out of the loop, disconnected from what common people take for granted. These are the words of a man who is so much at odds with society that the simple fact of other people living the “normal life” is a source of wonder and disbelief. It’s such a harsh, direct statement of one’s isolation : “The world is a strange place to live in. All those cars”.

That’s what Lugosi meant when he said : “People... all going somewhere... all with their own thoughts... their own ideas... all with their own personalities”. He’s basically commenting on Glen’s inability to fit in. Which, of course, is Ed Wood’s inability to fit in.

That’s the reason why Ed Wood is putting on screen all these disjointed grotesque images, like a cut-up or a surrealistic montage.
The world doesn’t make much sense to Ed.
People carrying out their normal lives look insane to Ed.
So, Ed is showing us what makes sense to him, and what makes sense to him looks like a random mess to us. “Glen or Glenda” is about what it’s like to be a misfit.

Ultimately, Ed Wood’s message with this is : you think I’m fucked up, but it’s the society you live in that’s dysfunctional.

In the end, whatever you think about the movie, you’ve got to admit : there’s something inspiring in Ed Wood’s tenacity to flesh out his personal fantasies and demons, to make a work of art in the cheap exploitation circuit, to do something that matters in, of all places, Hollywood.

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