Friday, July 10, 2009

An Artist Trapped in a Hack's Body

This is my contribution to
The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, hosted by Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles.

The notion of a man being trapped is what drives Tim Burton's Ed Wood, the best movie the director has ever made. Watching the film makes it clear that Burton has a personal investment in the story--- he identifies with the director in unique, unexpected ways, and that's what makes Ed Wood a great film. It would have been so easy for Burton to make a mean-spirited biopic that relishes in the director's weaknesses--- after all, Ed Wood's reputation precedes him; he's commonly referred to as "the worst director of all time", he was a transvestite, he was an alcoholic, and his career is defined by his relationship with Bela Lugosi, who was a has-been at that point. But Burton goes the other way with his portrait of the director--- it's one of the most sympathetic, warm, loving portraits I've ever seen in a biographical film. Which isn't to say that Burton's film falls into the trap of idol worship--- rather, the warmth emanates from Burton's identification with the director.

It's because Burton empathizes with the director's plight that he was able to make a movie like Ed Wood. Burton understands Wood's love of cinema, and he's struck by the comic-tragic ironies of the man who made Plan 9 From Outer Space being inspired by Citizen Kane, of all things. Johnny Depp's Ed Wood, king of the B-movies, lives in the shadow of Orson Welles; there are many scenes in Wood and his girlfriend's (Sarah Jessica Parker) apartment where the poster for Citizen Kane literally eclipses the man, and he keeps comparing his own progress to that of Orson Welles'. This element highlights the way cinematic history has treated Wood; as a freak, an anomaly, a side-show in the main attraction of high-art. So many over the years have condescended towards Ed Wood, and it's this notion that Burton spends the entirety of the film rejecting. It's because Burton sees elements of himself in Wood that he is able to portray the man so warmly and affectionately--- the relationship between Wood and Bela Lugosi (an uncanny Martin Landau) mirrors his own with horror icon Vincent Price, and Burton's sensibility undoubtedly has a rooting in the B-Science Fiction horror that was Wood's specialty, only with a comically expressionistic overtone.

Again, it's the idea of a man trapped that Burton seems to most strongly identify with. Burton, having experienced hardships in the Hollywood system with the two Batman movies, understands the way the drive to express yourself artistically is made into a commodity. When Wood is getting interviewed for his first chance at a directing job, a schlocky B-Movie called I Changed My Sex (later to become Glen or Glenda), the producer tells him "Ed, you seem like a nice kid, but look around you...I don't hire directors with burning desires to tell their stories. I make movies like Chained Girls. I need someone with experience who can shoot a film in four days that'll make me a profit. I'm sorry. That's all that matters". Ed knows that he, above everyone else, is qualified to make this movie, because he sees himself in the main character. But just because Wood has that "burning desire" to tell the story doesn't mean he has a talent or the experience to do so--- and this is where the element of being trapped comes into the picture. Ed, in spite of his dreams of being a film maker of Wellesian proportion, simply doesn't have the chops. As Burton sees him, Ed Wood is trapped in his fate as the 'worst director of all time'.

When the movie introduces us to Ed Wood, it is opening night of his play The Casual Company in Los Angeles. It's pouring, which is a theatrical superstition for bringing good luck to a production, but naturally not in Wood's case: it's press night, but there isn't any press. As the typically corny play unfolds in the run-down theatre, Wood emphatically mouths the lines backstage--- in a way, this early scene sums up Wood's fate. He has the enthusiasm, the drive, the passion--- but he is unable to bring the all the elements together successfully, partially because of lack of resources, but mostly because of a lack of discernible talent. And his play, a drama about World War II, is full of the cornball social pretense that would permeate Wood's career. The vision and enthusiasm are there, it's the other elements that are lacking.

The scene immediately following shows the cast out celebrating, and Wood opens a local newspaper to read the first of the many critical trashings of his career. His loyal group of friends huddle around him as he reads the evisceration--- and while we don't get to hear the entirety of the piece, we get a clear enough understanding of the extent of the pan by the players' reactions. "Do I really have a face like a horse?", his girlfriend asks, "What does 'ostentatious' mean?", another of his friends ask. While such a slaying would surely be enough to discourage even the strongest of egos, Ed stays focused on the positive. "You just can't concentrate on the negative. He's got some nice things to say... See, 'The soldiers costumes are very realistic,' that's positive!" He is, right of course, that it could have been far worse--- there are some reviews where they don't even mention the costumes. Burton understands the kick-you-when-you're-down methodology of show business, and here he shows the extent of its cruelty. Another later scene illustrates this, which shows a Hollywood Producer viewing Wood's first opus, Glen or Glenda, and, astounded by its sheer awfulness, is convinced that it's a practical joke. When Wood calls the studio later to ask if they were in business, the Producer tells him that Glen or Glenda is the worst film he ever saw, to which Wood's reply is "Well, my next one will be better!". Though, knowing what we know of Wood's reputation, his can-do enthusiasm is borderline depressing.

Johnny Depp gives what may be the best performance of his career as the energetic, optimistic Ed Wood. Depp has said that his Wood was a combination of "the blind optimism of Ronald Reagan, the enthusiasm of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, and Casey Kasem", though the performance is never pitched as caricature. Rather, Depp uses the quirks in his performance to expose Wood's humanity, and in one of the movie's most affecting sequences he asks his girlfriend "Honey, what if I'm wrong? What if I just don't have it?" Anyone who has tried to express themselves through art understands the fear of not having that great intangible thing called talent--- and with this admission Burton makes the relatively diminutive career of Ed Wood something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But what an exuberant, joyous self-fulfilling prophecy it is! The sequence near the end when Wood makes his 'masterpiece', Plan 9 From Outer Space, is simultaneously hilarious and bittersweet--- the movie treats Wood's infamous film as though it was Da Vinci painting The Sistine Chapel, or Mozart penning Requiem. "This is the one,", Wood says of his most famous film, "I know I'll be remembered for this film". He was right in more ways than he could have imagined. Yes, Wood may have carved out a legacy as the 'worst director' in the history of the medium of film--- but Burton is suggesting with Ed Wood that an infamous legacy is better than no legacy at all. Tim Burton's Ed Wood stands as a unique tribute to one of film history's strangest and most idiosyncratic figures. No one did bad like Ed Wood, and Burton understands why, perhaps more than he would like.


Marilyn said...

Nice review, Ryan. Obviously, you're not alone in loving this movie, and you may be right that it's the best on Burton has made to date, at least among his nonanimated efforts.

I don't think this is Depp's best performance, though. He seems kind of one-note to me, except with Landau, who brings a lot of Depp's performance.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Ryan; Many Ed Wood devotees pick at this movie, but I love it. I think, bottom line, it is a loving portrait and captured the optimistic, never-say-die essense of Wood (as does the title of your blog).

Also, it made millions aware of Ed Wood (including myself), and curious enough to seek out his work.

Great post! -- Mykal

Greg said...

Ryan, thank you for your contribution to the blogathon. This is probably my favorite Tim Burton movie. When I first saw it I liked it a lot but was too focused on what was factually wrong (inconsequential stuff like saying it's Bela's house used in Plan 9 when it's Tor Johnson's house, how the actor playing Dudley Manlove was far too old, how lines were said incorrectly during the Plan 9 scenes, etc) but if I watch it again I'm sure that won't bother me this time. I rarely care about small factual inconsistencies anymore in movies.

And Martin Landau was just stunning. I'd like to see it again just for his performance.

Rick Olson said...

Fine piece, Ryan, although I have to agree more with Marilyn about Depp's performance. I think he has grown a lot as an actor since then; I think his perf as Dillinger is better.

That said, he was what the movie required; it may be my favorite Burton film as well.

And Landau's performance was fabulous, as Greg has said.

Adam Zanzie said...

As a child, Burton was one of my three favorite filmmakers; as I got older, the fascination I had with his films started to wear off after I realized that he was beginning to target the goth audience.

"Ed Wood" is the one Burton film that I would say is great- "Big Fish" has hints of genius in it as well. Oh sure, I enjoy watching some of his other films, including "Beetlejuice", "Pee Wee's Big Adventure", both of his "Batman" movies and, for the sake of guilty pleasure, his "Planet of the Apes" remake. But some of his other stuff is overrated. "Edward Scissorhands" works up until that terrible action finale; "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is somewhat inferior to the Mel Stuart/Gene Wilder original; and "Sleepy Hollow", despite all of its visual grandeur, is something of a bore. I haven't seen "Sweeny Todd" yet because, well, I dislike revenge movies.

I loved "Ed Wood" though. Proves that Burton has a heart of some sort. Strangely, Burton's follow-up film, "Mars Attacks!", makes fun of the B-movie genre more than it celebrates it.

Adam Zanzie said...

Going off-topic, I watched "Manhattan" today. AWESOME. I even prefer it to "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters".

Now, here's the thing... if I had seen the film a week ago, I probably would have liked "Whatever Works" a little less. The relationship between Allen and Mariel Hemingway is one that we care strongly about and one that we are even moved by (especially during the scene when she bursts into tears after he proposes that they break up), whereas the relationship between Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood wasn't as cleanly structured.

One huge thing about "Manhattan" that I fell in love with was simply the way that the film looks. I've always thought of Allen the same way think of somebody like Robert Altman or Sidney Lumet or Norman Jewison: more of an actor's director than a visualist. Not so with this film. I know everyone here has probably already seen it, so it would be pointless to give details. But, damn. Talk about a visually precise accomplishment.

Ryan Kelly said...

Hey everyone, thanks for the kind words. Sorry I haven't left the comments here sooner but this weekend I was travelling and had a memorial service to tend to which left little time for me to devote to the blog.

Anyway, Marilyn, I'll agree Depp is kind of one-note, but it's also more of a comedic performance than anything. And his timing is just impeccable, I think. And again, I feel like he exposes a lot of the character's humanity even with the consistency he brings to the role. I think Landau's performance could be classified as one-note, too, though in some ways he's given more 'dramatic' material to work with. Ya know, with the whole Lugosi being a washed up junkie. Probably no small part of why he won the oscar.

So his 'non-animated' efforts... by which you mean Nightmare Before Christmas, or do you like Corpse Bride as well? After watching Coraline this year I'm starting to think Henry Selick was as large a part of that film's success as Burton was.

Ryan Kelly said...

Mykal, why do you think Wood fans have a problem with the film? Is it because they like the 'underground'-ness of Wood and think Burton makes it too mainstream? I can't see why a Wood fan wouldn't like the film. I can't think of a more loving tribute in all of film biopics. And, like you, Burton's film was my introduction to Wood.

Thanks for reading.

Ryan Kelly said...

Rick, part of me could agree that Depp's performance as Dillinger is better--- it's certainly more multi-faceted. Depp is so charistmatic and charming it's amazing watching him strip away those characteristics.

Could we agree that it's his best performance with Burton?

Ryan Kelly said...

Greg, thanks for the kind words, and thank you for being THE BEST BLOGATHON HOST EVER. Not that I'm actually any kind of authority on the matter, considering I've never taken part in one of these before.

And yes, you match Ed Wood again. The movie delighted me again when I watched it for write-up purposes.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Ryan: I think Wood devotees point to some of the chronological inaccuracies of the film (certain events happening out of sequence, etc.). Also, I know many Lugosi fans and family were offended by the language Martin landau’s Lugosi uses, like calling Karloff a "limey Cocksucker." Lugosi was of the old, courtly European school and would have never used such language.

But for me these complaints are really trivial and miss the real worth of the film. One must look at the larger picture. It is obvious Burton and all primary actors loved both Lugosi and Wood and wanted to honor their memories. That is the main thing- - Ed Wood was, to me, done with nothing but love and honor, and it really captured well Wood's powerful optimism

Also this film brought me to the work of Ed wood. And, because of the portrait of Ed Wood in this film, I didn't seek his work to laugh at bad movies - I looked for his films to see the work of an extremely interested film-maker.

I will always love Ed Wood for that alone.

I say again - Great post! -- Mykal

Ryan Kelly said...

I hear ya, Adam, I was definitely a Burton fan from a young age. He was one of the earliest director's I can remember associating with a distinct style. Beetlejuice was a favorite of mine growing up, and I remember going to see The Nightmare Before Christmas when it came out! I still love Burton, on the whole, but I have something of a love-hate with everything he's done this decade. Of those movies, I think Big Fish is the best, but it has some very shaky moments. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd are, IMO, extremely mixed bags--- movies I went back and forth on loving and hating minute to minute.

I'm glad you brought up Mars Attacks, which I tried and tried to fit into the piece but couldn't find the right lead-in. It's kinda like him making an Ed Wood movie, and I think it's one of the most subversively satirical Hollywood pictures of the 90s. I mean, if you look at the blockbusters that define the 90s for so many people, they are nothing but B-Movies with A budgets and production values. Burton takes this concept to the extreme and it's such effective comedy. And it has what may be my favorite Elfman score--- though that's a long list in itself.

And glad you saw Manhattan, Adam. I'm gonna have to take major exception that you refer to Allen and Altman as 'actor's directors'--- they are both supreme stylists. Admittedly, Altman and Allen are actor's-directors as well, but that's just one facet of it. But yes, Manhattan is one of the most gorgeously photographed films I can think of, and that soundtrack gives me chills just thinking about it.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, I guess you could get hung up on those semantics, especially if you're a devotee of the subject. But, at the same time, getting hung up on the factual innacuracies of a movie, you miss what truth it illuminates. Sure, Wood didn't really meet Welles in a bar, but could the movie have climaxed any other way? I think You put it wonderfully in your comment, that the movie captures Wood's "powerful optimism". I wonder if these people who don't like it would have preferred a movie that ignored the powerful optimism and got every little historical detail right.

And as for Lugosi's cursing, I can see the family getting mad about it but I think it was definitely supposed to be something of a caricature. My favorite line in the movie is when Landau goes "Nobody gives two fucks for Bela".

Thanks again for the kind words, Mykal.

Marilyn said...

Ryan - Yes, I love Nightmare and really, really like Bride. They show a strange "live-action" feel to them to me, that tracks closely with his other work. I just think they're delightful and the kind of sophisticated children's films that are very hard to find these days - ones that parents like to see just as much as the kiddies.

As for Landau, I suppose you could be right about one-note, but I think he was given more range and showed it. Despite Depp's superb timing, which you rightly point out, it did get a little caricaturish, which I didn't feel when watching Landau.

Ryan Kelly said...

I'd agree with you on Nightmare being one of those truly special children's films, but I'm less enthusiastic about Corpse Bride, though I haven't seen it since its theatrical release. I'm enough of a Burton fan to check it out again.

If you like those two a lot Coraline, which I reviewed here back in the day, gets my highest recommendations. It's one of the most sophisticated American animated films of recent times, and I would put it up there with Nightmare any day of the week, easy.

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