Copyright © 2010 by James Clark
At the end of Fellini’s 8½, the protagonist/filmmaker, Guido, who has led us through a brilliant and harrowing crossfire of conflicting motives, declares a ceasefire. He redirects his energies to filmic presentation stemming from the new-found nonaggressive priority of finding in the whole spectrum of those around him points of affinity from which to derive exciting forward movement. The question left unconsidered by that launch party-become-wrap party for an abandoned film is: What kind of product can be built from a point of departure of such giddy inclusiveness?
With his comedy/biopic, Ed Wood (1994), Tim Burton (along with writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) examines that loaded question. The retrospective brings into view its own wrap party, for a film completed by Ed, titled, Bride of the Atom. Whereas Guido’s event took for its venue an elaborate, high-budget set, featuring a rocket launch-pad, Ed’s little sci-fi shindig was held in a butcher’s locker with sides of beef and pork hanging all around (echoing the busload of dead meat at the outset of Fellini’s classic). And whereas for Guido the party becomes a commencement of fulsome respect and affection toward and from associates, for Ed, who had entertained his guests with an exotic dance number deploying his long-standing fondness for wearing women’s clothes, particularly angora sweaters (Guido’s only such weakness being idly twirling his girlfriend’s little purse in settling her into a hotel), it marks the end of his romantic and business attachment to “Dolores,” who interrupts her trying sweetheart’s revelry with, “You’re wasting your life making shit! This isn’t the real world! You’ve surrounded yourself with weirdoes! I need a normal life!” Guido’s wife, Louisa, who went on pretty much like this (though his philandering was the sticking point between them) is finally onside at their wrap party. Ed’s problems, however—with Dolores and everything else—won’t go away.
Ed Wood sets in relief the unfinished business of 8½, and thereby comprises a lively demonstration of Burton’s capacity to discreetly install traces of films from the past into his scenarios, in order to challenge the actions of his players and, in this case, at least, launch a rejoinder to the august precedent. The starring actress of Bride of the Atom (aka, Bride of the Monster) is an assertive young brunette (whose financial solvency quickly wins over the chronically cash-strapped Hollywood wannabe) with pronounced, intense eyes, like the presence of the young girlfriend of Guido’s friend, Mario, who had “enormous ambitions” to become a movie star. Moving on from Dolores (and her douleurs), Ed meets “Kathy,” and they hit it off from the outset, in both being unmistakable exponents of accentuating the positive (sort of like Guido and his mistress, Carla). At their interview with an imposing and self-doubting actress, Kathy observes, “Eddie doesn’t pass judgment on people.”/ “That’s right. If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.” The actress, “Vampyra,” a horror specialist, is remarkably buxom and always wears black, sort of like 8½’s Saraghina. The title, Bride of the Atom, recalls her dancing with Guido as an infatuated little boy. During a breakdown of a Spook House carnival ride, recalling the sputtering of Guido’s magnum opus, there is an airing of Kathy’s uncomplicated sexuality (again evoking the situation of Guido and Carla, nemesis of resentment volcano, Louisa). Ed wants her to know right from the get-go, “I like to wear women’s clothes. It’s just something I do.”/ Kathy responds, after mulling that over, “Does that mean you don’t like sex with girls?”/ “Oh, no, I love having sex with girls. Dressing in women’s clothes makes me feel closer to them.”/ She ponders a while, and then says, “OK.”/ “OK?”/ “OK.” Carla was a devotee of Donald Duck. Both Kathy and Ed love pulp fiction and horror radio shows and movies. During casting for the last of his films dealt with by Burton (about which it is a given that the uncritical protagonist will love it), Ed looks over three male candidates and rejects them all, as Guido did in his desultory march toward a production that he felt bad about.
The instinct for settling only for the best—“Try to be a cut above”—(or at least not accepting the worst), in evidence in that episode just noted, has an upside and a downside. A bombastic speech Ed has penned for the star of Bride of the Monster, namely, Dracula cum laude, Bella Lugosi, closing in on Guido’s unsatisfying absolutism, hints at the downside. “Home? I have no home. Hunted. Despised. Living like an animal. The jungle is my home. I shall show the world that I can be its master! I shall perfect my own race of supermen that will conquer the world!” But in an Ed Wood production (and, almost incredibly, there was such a paradigm and personage, with titles and scenarios Burton and his recent Film Studies graduates/writers must have regarded as heaven-sent) there is scant attention to what such “perfect” gestures might imply. In the 1950s run-up to a sexploitation flick about “boy to chick” transformation, which Ed tweaks to suit his own less cut-and-dried predilections, Bella laments the demise of films with “poetry,” and goes on to locate a compelling power of the horror fare he excelled at (in the 1930s and 1940s) in their forging a bond with women who had experienced “the agony of childbirth,” and its rivers of blood. This comes as a neat marketing angle to the poetry-deficient wheeler-dealer, who (lightly graced by the poetic innovation) goes on to articulate his effort as concerning “how people have two personalities, a public, normal side, and a private, mysterious side. Glen or Glenda “may even move millions of people.”
This at-first-glance goofy enactment of a blot upon the resources of film art by an arrestingly game and gentle soul totes a formidable bag of tricks designed to “move,” if not millions, a coterie having realized that in the pell-mell of movie enticement there is a partnership enticed by “something big.” Ed Wood begins with “spooky” theme-music and sets and props that would hardly pass if the target were viewers of Saturday morning TV. Then, sitting up from his coffin-home, there is a magician who, as in 8½, leads off (without the forerunner’s bathos-proof panache) in affixing this almost unbearable distraction and malaise to a power source making it all worthwhile. “You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious…the unexplainable. We are giving you all the evidence. Can your hearts stand the shocking facts of the story of Edward G. Wood, Jr.?” We are confronted by a low comedy of a naïf blundering (in an almost silent film way—very different, thereby, from the technically, especially sonically, swift Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) into sophisticated territory that evokes a high level of intent in engaging a tenacious, irrevocable difficulty having galvanized film world notables, like Fellini. The third and final dreadful effort has a title and production context giving us plenty of “evidence.” It resuscitates a film clip of the now-deceased Lugosi emerging from his house and savoring a rose blossom from a plant by the door. This little miracle play, about some pristine frappe amidst hustling about to make a splash in public life, entrances Ed, who watches it over and over. As a canny exploitation of someone in his grave, the next opus is first titled, Grave Robbers from Outer Space. But—being financed by a synod of Baptists who have set their sights on leveraging the profits of this instance of “a commercially proven genre” in order to put out an even dozen sacred oeuvres, one for each of the Apostles (“uplifting religious films”)—the idea of grave robbing becomes prohibitive, and the title becomes, Plan 9 from Outer Space, an unlikely but undeniable kin to 8½ (and its clerical censors). Excited about being for once safely financed, Ed promises “No compromises” this time. Then he and the whole cast allow themselves to be baptized in a chic swimming pool reminding one of mobster Carl Evello’s estate in Burton’s enforcer of choice, the 1950s noir, Kiss Me Deadly, where protagonist Mike Hammer (as portrayed by actor Ralph Meeker, who has a wide and playfully game visage not very unlike that of Johnny Depp’s Ed) was proceeding very differently from the noisily-principled loose cannon.
It turns out that the point in the script which the Baptist bagmen pounce on to get “Grave Robbers” out of the title is that the aliens have a scheme (“Plan 9”) for resurrecting Bella (and any other promising heavies) to get him back into play as a killer, mowing down the cops and other impediments to their ambitions. “Resurrection of the dead” is a favorite conceit of serial killer, Dr. Soberin, an alien in the employ of the Soviet Union for the sake of lifting nuclear material from those who have lifted it from Los Alamos, keeping things hopping in Kiss Me Deadly. Soberin, in addition to being a homicidal spy, has a peculiar fondness for melancholy, delusional declamation (along the lines of, “Home? I have no home…”)—the kind of world-conquering bathos that spurs the cleansing task of Guido in 8 ½, and a pitfall that seldom fully beckons and never even slightly troubles Ed, to ludicrous consequences. Soberin is a grave robber of sorts, inasmuch as the focus of his exertions is a woman, whom he kills with horrific cruelty at the outset of the film, unaware of her having swallowed the key that opens the hiding place of the leather-bound box (Pandora’s Box) containing the dangerous treasure. Getting to her body becomes the (only vaguely appreciated) exigency of both Soberin and “private eye,” Mike, who becomes fascinated by the case for reasons beyond those of the alien. Mike’s fascination with the broader and deeper mystery becomes a major irritant to his business partner and lover, Velda, who lambastes him about the weirdness and danger of “the great Whatzit” he pursues with unquenchable desire. Her patience, however, far surpasses that of Dolores—“What kind of sick mind operates like this?…Oh, you’ve got your nerve, buddy!”—who passes the baton over to Kathy. The (hopefully thought-provoking) shortfall pictured by the Burton film is captured with all cylinders firing, by the scene—presented in a shoot from Glen or Glenda—where Ed reflexively protests that he’d been trying to beat his habit about angora but he needs her help, and put-upon Dolores, relenting in terms of, “Maybe together we can work this out,” goes into W.D. Griffith-style rictus (with appropriate musical accompaniment), turning her back to the camera, whipping off her sweater and, in ostentatious martyrdom, handing it over to him. (Laconic, “bootie” provider, Kathy, would represent something of a rally toward the real deal.) The Texas tycoon (“Mr. [Real] McCoy”) who provides the completion funding for Bride of the Monster delivers two stipulations to Ed: the film must end with “a big explosion…Sky full of smoke…” (Kiss Me Deadly was released in 1955, exactly the period of Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.); and his son (“a bit slow”) must have a part. We frequently see this novice practicing his one line—“I want you stayin’ away from that old willow’s place.” What he is trying to say concerns “that old widow.” Mike conspicuously does not stay away from the beach house belonging to Soberin (who had, early on, subjected him there to a “truth serum,” whereas Bella/Dracula was into hypnotism to have his way) where his girlfriend, Lily, has just shot him dead—leaving her a widow of sorts—and goes on to shoot Mike, whose death involves freeing Velda from that objectionable place and with difficulty making it to the water’s edge before being blown away by an atomic blast detonated by a far-too-curious Lily. The warm friendship between Ed and soon-to-be-dead Bella touches upon Mike’s friendship with another doomed figure for whom English was a second language, namely, garage mechanic, Nick. Bella’s TV segment, as Dracula, is introduced as about someone who’s a “real pain in the nick.” Nick is killed by Soberin’s releasing a jack which he needed to hold up the car he was working under. Bella is crazy about the line (concerning his being, like Soberin, the puppet-master of the narrative), “Pull the string!” On Ed’s getting him into a clinic to deal with an addiction to morphine, Bella is locked in a cell and strapped to a bed, just as Mike was in the course of his dealing with his addiction to “something big,” a power-pack that is remarkably difficult to finesse. On a couple of occasions, we see the mushroom-shaped Brown Derby Restaurant where Ed struggles to open up some financing of his dream, his little dream with traces of bigness.
On being checked by the Baptist overlords for a disconcerting indifference toward quality control—a take, once-over-lightly, amounts to “perfect”—Ed, beginning to lose his patience, snaps back at them, “Filmmaking is not about tiny details. It’s about the big picture!” In doing so he inadvertently makes prominent his big problem with thinking big. Explicitly underestimating the “tiny details” of sharing goodwill that permeate the misadventure and constitute his purchase upon a big adventure, this Pee-Wee gets a bit rough. “I thought this was a group effort.”/ “No! These Baptists are stupid!” They reprove his need for angora at anxious moments, and he flips out, ending up in a bar with Orson Welles. Orson, though hardly a paragon of staying the course (but a marvel of versatility and multi-tasking, qualities which Ed seems to revere far more intensely than making serious sense), dishes out these bar room nibbles. “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” Ed marches back to the Plan 9 set, takes charge and wraps it up. And at the premiere we receive evidence that he will always be a cog in the wheel of someone else’s (Baptist-leaning) dreams. The footage at the outset of Plan 9 is the little home movie he shot with Bella on the door step. Bella had asked Ed what the scene would be about. “You’re a great man, a highly respected celebrity on the way to a big social brouhaha. You’re in a hurry.”/ “What if I take a moment to slow down and enjoy the budding flowers?”/ “Great idea, Bella!” Great idea, but lost on the cutting-room floor. Soaking up the tolerance, if not adulation, for his film at the premiere, he declares, “This is the one I’ll be remembered for!” He has lip-synced the voiceover for the scene on the steps, to the effect that there is a sublime victim, overwhelmed by the memory of his departed wife, who had steadfastly maintained that lovely rose bush.
Bella has shown himself to be a resentful, foul-mouthed megalomaniac—“Karloff doesn’t deserve to smell my shit!”—but also a film pro, with a grasp of what is at stake that Ed will never have. (A by-then thoroughly disenchanted Dolores, on hearing about the new, memory-challenged cast member of Bride of the Monster, fumes, “Wood Productions, the mark of quality!”) Responding to the alarm of the cameraman that he would print for the public a scene in which a large man walks into the doorframe on exiting, Ed explains why the take was flawless. “He’d have trouble like that every day of his life. We want to be realistic.” The politically correct ridiculousness of that hastily derived rationale, delivered with Ed’s customary sweetness elicits a chuckle in light of its disregard for the “tiny details” that we instinctively know to be crucial for the accomplishment of a film. For all his reflexive kindness to others in including them in the limelight he finds everywhere, Ed continually performs an abrupt short-circuiting of that magic spell to an upshot of common and crude and patently phony gestures reeking of infantile milking of applause for them. Bella’s frailty and stardom (now dwarfish) galvanizes that joyous and generous energy source to a consistently cogent pitch; but no one else in sight receives that mark of quality from Ed. Certainly not Vampyra. On escaping from an ugly mob at the premiere of Bride of the Monster, Ed sniggers to Bella, “Did you see that kid grab Vampyra’s boobies?” Certainly not Dolores, whose warm, robust and quirky encouragement for the neophyte, having self-doubts due to general indifference and specific insults, did not come with an equal measure of affection from him. “Oh the heck with you!” is his response to her not guessing that the star he’d met was Bella. (She guesses Basil Rathbone, whose lead-pipe Holmesian reasoning powers did not jibe with Ed’s big, slow skid approach to discernment.) Had he been aptly appreciative of her direct caring, instead of acting like a geek brother to her as a secretarial sister, her understanding of his disconcerting approach to ignition might have developed to a point of enduring his ambitions and assisting his tackling a steep learning curve. And not even impressively congenial Kathy (gets a serious break), whom he whisks off to Vegas for their wedding after receiving a better than riotous reception at the premiere of Plan 9. Their flooded convertible with the stuck-open top on a night of heavy rain stands in marked contrast to the surf where it ends for Mike and Velda. They share a gee-whiz love for radio melodramas, and he does assert he’s interested in having a relation with her. But, as with Dolores, he carries on like a youngish geriatric, a sort of American and technically deficient Mr. Chips (“What are you people doing? Get back to work!”), in face of actress, Patricia Arquette’s languorous but overt sexuality. They run into Kathy’s chiropractor, who pretends to find her “looking in alignment today.” She counters by saying she feels out of “alignment;” and the thread of her business with Ed gives one a definite sense of what the contortion is about.
There are several moments where Ed is quite vociferous about liking to have sex with women. No doubt that is true, given the sensual priorities of his modus operandi. But there would be the “tiny details” of “alignment” so out of whack that he comes to us here as a vaguely impressive, sinking vessel, and thereby an alert that his bouncy wretchedness has to be closely examined. As he tries to explain to his first backer, there is a compelling “drama” in the interplay between one’s mundane, public actions and a “secret,” private life. Ed can well appreciate the market for productions about such dialectic. But he is so bereft of a consistent mustering of the “poetry” (as Bella puts it) that his film dramas are stillborn, and his dealings with intimates likewise lack cogent fire and fuelling nuance. On first encountering Kathy, he boasts, “I’m the writer, director and producer of all my films.” She gently counters with, “Aw, nobody does all that.” He comes back (beaming with anticipation of glory days ahead) with, “Nobody but me and Orson Welles [of Citizen Kane].” Though she doesn’t pursue the matter, her presence (all about down-to-earth nuance, and as far from careerist insistence as can be) exudes a riposte that that latter bombastic melodrama and technical tour de force is far from speaking to her.
(Another contemporary take [originally involving Johnny Depp as headed for the starring role] about concurring with Welles’ Renaissance audacity allows one to better comprehend Burton’s accomplishment. Julian Schnabel, an A-list painter and dazzling film dilettante, has produced a series of portrayals of notables bringing to mind the Baptists’ project about edifying biopics. The most brilliant of these works [of short-circuiting the grandeur of phenomenality to a lock-point in the grandeur of personality], The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), takes up the amazing story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, erstwhile editor of the French version of the fashion magazine, Elle, who suffered a massive stroke leaving him mobile in only one area, his face, and only one communicative site, his left eyelid. Sardonic and genetically self-impressed—his ancient father looks into the mirror and declares, “They don’t make them like me anymore”—he pulls himself out of suicidal depression and whacks off a chic and inspiring tome by way of blinking, to devoted hospital staff and his wife, his choice of letters to be inscribed. Though his wife is shown doing yeoman service and expressing intense and functional caring, his mistress can’t stand the thought of setting foot in such a gloomy place. He persists in preferring the latter and thereby driving his wife to special grief. The film thereby not only puts most of its chips on the “unforgettable character” bet, but still leaves quite a bit of investment on the number reading, “When you’re a Titan, cruelty is just another embellishment.” Whereas Ed’s movies are clearly going nowhere, this other entry is far more adept at concealing its bankruptcy.)
One of the rare spurts of wit in the two hours of profitably tough sledding with Burton comes at the point when “Loretta” (she of the piercing eyes) gets hold of the script for Bride of the Monster and discharges a forthright self-interest (her eyes becoming comets) in figuring that the starring role is the one for her. “Janet Lawton is clearly the part to play. Can’t you just see me in that part?”/ Ed, who has already promised the part to Dolores, but seeing an overriding factor (the financing) coming to bear, his eyes becoming almost as wide as hers, forcibly concedes, “Yyyesss!” His smile is laced with dismay, and for those few seconds his body language has something to say. The Pandora’s Box he’s opening clearly burns him; and the subterranean thrusts of Kiss Me Deadly and 8½ register their kinship here with Ed’s funny discomfiture. Such a moment draws attention to a wealth of acceleration percolating within such fortuitous miasma.
Out of a spectacularly accomplished approach to filmmaking, Guido rescinds anything so gauche as a sensualist crusade and exposes himself to the nightmarish and yet bracing complexities of seriously working with aliens. (Vampyra’s late-night show sign-off was “Pleasant nightmares,” a phrase that could speak to real adventure, or wallowing in bathos. Near the film’s end, the magician [caught up in fatuity that’s also on the money] puts it this way: “We are always interested in the future, for that is where we’ll spend the rest of our life.” The wedding in Vegas would sharpen that outlook to the high-risk gamble it is.) Ed, lacking Guido’s well-rounded courage and Mike’s devil-may-care courage, has, against all reason, plodded into casting light in an unprecedented way upon severities entailed in the glamorous lift-offs of his formidable compatriots. Though selling his potential for coverage of the kinky scenario of a purveyor of “crap,” the following declaration brushes against a historical reckoning fraught with primordial conflict and danger. “I know what it’s like to live with a secret and fear being seen for what I am.” In presenting his “shocking” story, Burton, almost imperceptibly, joins the early practitioners and their big risks.