Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Glen or Glenda?

I feel like I’ve been living a bit of a lie all these many years, and there’s really no better place than here, in my review of Ed Wood’s infamous ode to transvestites, to finally admit it to all of you. This is a little hard to admit, but despite my love of both terrible movies and cult films, and my love of the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood, before this week I hadn’t actually seen any of Wood’s movies aside from Plan 9. Thankfully, with the help of the Ed Wood Box Set, I am now able to enjoy such completely insane efforts as this one.

As mentioned above, this is at least theoretically Wood’s appeal to the masses to become more accepting of transvestites (one of whom was Wood himself), and in that regard it can be regarded as both fairly noble and very ahead of its time, coming as it did in the early 1950s, when being different was something that could outright get you arrested or beaten to death. Of course, what makes the film truly sublime is how Wood feels he can’t let it just be a straightforward tale of a transvestite terrified at his girlfriend/wife finding out his dark secret (and one told almost documentary style at times, due to Wood’s fairly minimalist directing style), and so has his friend Bela Lugosi play the Puppet Master (damn it, I just can’t get away from that series!), who sits in his chair on some gothic horror set while spouting random madness that has nothing to do with anything in the main story of this film or any other, while we get stock footage of bulls running or whatever. Also, when we hit the forty minute mark, it suddenly derails and gives us like ten minutes of women doing strip teases and a woman lying on a couch while a man cracks a whip above her.

One has to admire the sheer bravado on display here by Edward D. Wood Jr. On this, his debut feature, he wrote, directed, and starred in it, also coming out as a transvestite in the process (in later films he’d also take on producing and editing chores, because he was just that much of a workaholic). That he was woefully incompetent at every one of these jobs is almost beside the point; being able to accomplish even this much is pretty damn impressive, no matter how poorly executed.

Of course, that’s not being entirely honest, as the main audience for this film is people wanting to see just how incompetently made it was. They largely won’t be disappointed, as, in addition to the aforementioned goofy kitchen sink approach to storytelling (though I’m pretty certain he only threw in Lugosi and the way too long strip teases as a means of padding out a story that barely has enough plot for half an hour) we get intensely wooden acting, awkwardly spliced together takes of scenes that leave characters standing there with their mouths abruptly shut while they finish their sentences like ventriloquists, hilariously terrible dialogue that badly misinterprets transvestites, homosexuals, and hermaphrodites (it misunderstands gender relations too, but since virtually all non noir movies did back then I’ll give Wood a pass) while admirably trying to remain understanding of them all, and through it all framing the whole endeavor as a police investigation into a transvestite suicide that seems to serve no purpose beyond having a major authority figure in the form of a cop growing to understand these poor, misunderstood people. In short, it’s everything a fan of campy, culty nonsense would want.

Of course, being his first movie, he had yet to develop his style (or budget) enough to really get his craziness going properly, but it’s a very promising start to a week of Ed Wood movies. You know, aside from the Bob Flanagan movie. Up next is Jail Bait, which isn’t really one of his more famous films. I’m going to go ahead and guess that’s because it’s not as interesting as his other movies, though I can‘t imagine how that could be, if it holds true to that title.

Rating: **

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