Julien Allen on Glen or Glenda?
Recognizing that the main purpose of this symposium is to identify and dissect “bad” films from “good” filmmakers, and not being clinically insane, I am not about to claim that Edward D. Wood Jr. was anyone’s definition of a good filmmaker, nor indeed that he was even a competent one. What I am prepared to argue, however, is that for a legitimate cinephile, intent on exploring the boundaries of cinema’s appeal, the matter of Wood’s technical competence is not structurally relevant to an appreciation of his work. His 1953 film Glen or Glenda? (a.k.a. I Led 2 Lives; a.k.a. I Changed My Sex; a.k.a. Male or Female?) stands apart for being Wood’s only attempted foray into “art” cinema territory—and for this reason is now widely considered to be an atrocity (both by those that like Wood’s films and those that don’t, but most of all for those that haven’t seen any of them) and the most catastrophic failure of a singularly bad career.
So when considering the “worst” entry in someone's body of work, it must surely be incumbent on the writer to decide what he or she considers “bad” in the first place (a truism that seems particularly apt when considering Wood’s oeuvre). The stark, sometimes colorful differences of opinion on what constitutes bad filmmaking (as well as the numerous areas of consensus) are ties which bind cinephiles together. It’s not unfair to suggest, for example, that words like “predictable” and “competent” are frequently deployed by serious film critics as pejoratives in reviews. By the same token, words like “experimental” and “engaged” are positive expressions more often associated with directors with an artistic statement or legacy in mind. By such apparently tenuous logic, the work of Edward Davis Wood Jr, who had none of the former qualities but plenty of the latter, merits attention.
Andrew Sarris’s development of auteur theory in the United States would have Wood fall at the first hurdle: “The first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.” But the immediate conclusion that Wood is an incompetent writer/director (and by the by, actor, editor, and production designer) is not only too easy, but also fatally reductive—it leaves nowhere to go—it condemns the man's work to irrelevance, permitting no further comment. Wood was unquestionably an auteur by every other accepted criteria available (in fact he was quite a spectacular example of the concept), but more importantly, Wood was producing films of lasting appeal to inquisitive audiences, films which contained more poetry and personality than are even attempted by at least a dozen highly competent and successful filmmakers we could name today.
If we examine what gave rise to the cult of Ed Wood, there are lessons to be learned about the traps into which critics can too easily fall. The Golden Turkey Awards, a book published in 1980 by Michael Medved, disinterred the long forgotten career of Wood and pronounced the resultant zombified body of work without question…the worst of all time. Forensically dissecting the technical deficiencies of a number of Wood's films (unintelligible scripting, bizarre plot contrivances, weak acting, unintentional hilarity) including in particular the 1959 sci-fi horror Plan 9 from Outer Space, the book (sensitively written two years after Wood’s death) was a huge success. That said, given that Michael Medved had absolutely no credible track record in film criticism whatsoever, it would be disappointing if any cinephile took this repulsive coffee table book’s conclusions seriously. Wood himself, who died in 1978 of a heart attack, would have been hurt by The Golden Turkey Awards but would doubtless have been satisfied enough with the publicity. He was protected from the sting of criticism during his life by the disreputability of the genre he worked in (science fiction/horror B pictures), by his boundless optimism and above all by the sense of close community and support he received from his idiosyncratic filmmaking entourage (which included drag actor John Cabell “Bunny” Breckenridge, Swedish wrestling giant Tor Johnson, radio psychic The Amazing Criswell, and the legendary Vampira, a.k.a Maila Nurmi).
Today, despite this unenviable reputation, Wood is genuinely revered as a cult filmmaker, both by lovers of cheap cinema but also genre historians who lament the passing of the independent B movie. Nowadays those we might have termed B-movie directors have quickly become A-listers (Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson) and B-movies themselves are no more, conceptually reincarnated only as slickly ponderous torture franchises (the Saw series) multimillion dollar blockbusters (Cowboys and Aliens—the title is the only thing ‘B’ about that), or cake-and-eat-it art-house homages like Grindhouse. Tim Burton's 1994 biopic of Wood, despite its overtones of mockery, was practically a hagiography for a swashbuckling pioneer in what has become a lost age of guerrilla filmmaking. Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is now as famous a B movie title as any in the canon.
So why is Wood loved—can it really just be people pointing and laughing? Accepting that the films have an intrinsic appeal at least for that reason, cinephiles can actually see for themselves the films’ other qualities. Despite the apparent confusion, there is a purity of communication, a strong distinguishable personality, a palpable desire for experimentation and a tremendous amount of chutzpah, not to mention a seductive simplicity—Wood didn’t pack the screen to make up for gaps in his experience, he stripped scenes down, most often to two-person conversations, which exposed his writing further. Wood’s ability to produce films at all is a triumph for cinematic democracy, but above all, his films are a powerful and unvarnished statement of unquenchable faith in the medium. To be able to look beyond the obvious and discover a film’s inner beauty is surely the test for any passionate film enthusiast. To watch a Wood film critically, is to learn a little bit more about how to watch and appreciate any film.
Glen or Glenda?, the story of a transvestite struggling to admit his predilection for wearing angora to his ingénue girlfriend, bears all the hallmarks (and more) of a Wood picture. The script, at times barely literate, contains a mixture of childlike philosophizing (“People . . . all going somewhere . . . all with their own thoughts . . . their own ideas . . . all with their own personalities”) and portentous trailer-speak (as when the police inspector asks the psychiatrist, “I’d like to hear the story to its fullest,” to which the doctor responds, “Only the infinity of the depths of a man’s mind can really tell the story”). The principal actors are, for the most part, undistinguished, though some (like Lyle Talbot, who had been a matinee idol in his youth) are actually pretty good. It contains a role created specifically for Wood’s friend Bela Lugosi as an all-seeing scientist, whose narration contains, regrettably, some of the most risible writing of all, nevertheless immaculately pronounced in Lugosi’s famous Magyar drawl. Where the film differs from the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Jail Bait (1954), Night of the Ghouls (1959), and Bride of the Atom (a.k.a. Bride of the Monster, 1955) is only in its ambition.
Though inevitably marketed as an exploitation film (and its frankness on the subject of transvestism would have been shocking at the time, not to mention the decision to dramatize a sex-change operation in the final reel), it is in fact a fiercely personal and politically engaged plea on behalf of transvestites to be distinguished from homosexuals and . . . to be understood and accepted. (Wood was himself a transvestite, and takes the role of Glen in the film). For fans of Plan 9 and Bride of the Atom this is the film that will be most often left firmly on the shelf, for it contains none of the primal thrills of zombies, grave-robbers from outer space, or giant octopuses—and this time, Lugosi’s mad scientist, filmed in a laboratory alone, has no actual influence on the proceedings, no matter how often he declaims that he will “pull the strings!” Wood’s horror work has been happily accepted today as fun, cheap, rough-edged cinema with a heart (and plenty of zombies). Glen or Glenda? on the other hand, feels like he’s being too earnest and biting off much more than he can chew. The liberties Wood habitually takes start to become truly laughable. We can forgive Terrence Malick for putting dinosaurs in The Tree of Life and Boonmee’s hairy apes, but a filmmaker of Wood’s feeble stature hasn’t earned the right to be outrageous—a great man’s bravery becomes a weak man’s lack of taste.
Yet this ambition—and Wood’s juxtaposition of a quasi-documentary approach with outrageously baroque flourishes, which it would be churlish to deny is truly experimental—give Glen or Glenda? a much higher status than the rest of his work and would make it a valued component of any cinephile’s DVD collection. A number of Wood’s techniques (despite an overall lack of cohesion) are disarmingly effective and avant-garde, including saracastic voiceovers, stubbornly long dialogue scenes, and outlandish dream sequences that carry more vitality and energy than, for example, Dalí’s drab efforts for Hitchcock’s Spellbound. The specific documentary style Wood uses resembles an instructional video for schools, speaking the facts as plainly as possible about what a transvestite is, and how a transvestite thinks and feels, confronting the audience with its own prejudices. A striking example of this appears at eighteen minutes in, when we see a woman sitting in a chair alone, her face obscured by a newspaper. The narrator asks, “What is it that would happen were this individual to appear this way on the street?” whilst the newspaper is folded up, revealing a man with full Grizzly Adams beard and long diamante drop earrings, wearing a dress. Over this, the narrator adds: “You’re doing it now—laughing . . . ” This technique is all the more satisfyingly hilarious for being effective as well—and its knowing manipulation and self-awareness immediately bring the audience closer to the director’s wavelength.
And as well as being funny, Wood is also a much cleverer filmmaker than many think. Glen or Glenda? features a frequently repeated scene of Wood, first in men’s clothing, but later in a wig and angora sweater and skirt, diffidently approaching a women’s wear shop window. This apparently unprepossessing scene would appear to those prepared to find fault in every aspect of the film as filler, or stock footage, included only to mitigate the director’s lack of ideas. In fact it carries an immense poignancy which gathers strength through repetition as the rest of the story (and with it our understanding of Wood’s predicament) unfolds. The same footage generates different emotions on each occasion: at first the figure is risible, later courageous, then visibly deeply unhappy, then finally triumphant, a scene which brings to mind nothing less than that other outcast, Chaplin’s tramp, approaching the blind flower seller in City Lights—and the poetic simplicity of the best of silent cinema. Whether Wood stumbled on this or devised it is of limited relevance, it is beautiful filmmaking (and all the more so for featuring an unattractive transvestite).
For those who prefer relativism, it should be said that the film features a) a good deal of Bressonian acting; b) a dream wedding sequence worthy of Cocteau, complete with a superbly realized Devil, and c) a hilarious and exhilarating ballet sequence that feels like a twisted homage to Stanley Donen, featuring bondage, half a dozen beautiful women in various states of ecstasy and undress, and cutaways to a brilliantly leering Lugosi. And while we’re at it, Mr. Sarris, the sound editing is superior to that of Orson Welles’s Othello, The Trial, and Mr. Arkadin (Welles, after the miracle of Kane, proved to be a wholly incompetent sound editor who didn’t even realize how bad some of the looping was in his films). And a word for Wood the actor, whose ultra-laid-back style in the role of Glen (and Glenda) is note-perfect—one can imagine how deeply appalling, say, Laurence Olivier would have been in the role.
The laughter prompted by the film could very easily be mockery (and it would be dishonest to deny that an awful lot of the film provokes laughter), but is likely to be closer to the laughter of a parent at their child’s school play, laughing with sympathy at the naïveté and laughing with surprise and pride simply because it is genuinely and unexpectedly entertaining. The single most striking frame is of Wood, heavily lit from below, transfixed in fear—a glorious signature that lends credence to his infinitesimally small claim to aesthetic credentials.
Glen or Glenda? takes a simple premise and delivers it in a complex way, whilst never losing the absolute purity of the message—a hallmark of great cinema. It is a lesson in how not to give up on a film too early—and proof of why you should always, literally and metaphorically, stay till the end. The biggest enemy of cinema, the thing that spurs on the bloated conglomerates and whatever high concept schlock they are force-feeding audiences at any one time, is cynicism. Wood’s cinema contains no cynicism at all. It seems simply to have become a vessel for everyone else’s.