By Stephen Mullen
Plan 9 From Outer Space is the poster child for a lot of things. Worst film of all time? So bad it’s good? Or more positively, as a piece of 0 budget filmmaking, and all that can go into that. But today, I want to write a bit about it as the poster child for the Limits of Intention.
Sorry that sounds so pretentious. But this is the point: that it is a hugely entertaining film, and while a lot of the entertainment value comes from mocking it, it’s not just ineptitude that makes it fun – there are some surprisingly clever ideas in there, though you can’t always be sure if they are supposed to be there. The film, even in a so-bad-its-good sense, holds its entertainment value. It is strange – see it a few times, and it might occur to you (it certainly occurs to me) that if you took the film as being deliberately made the way it is, as a parody, or as camp, or even as a low budget, slyly raw art film, it wouldn’t look much different than it does. Think about parodies, camp, art films – films like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra or Sleeper, or Killer Klowns from Outer Space – or films by John Waters, Luc Moullet, Guy Maddin: what makes those good films in themselves, and Plan 9 not? Knowing what the filmmakers had in mind, basically. How different would Plan 9 look if it were intended as a deliberate parody? If you ignore the fact that Ed Wood was a real guy with a real career who made films as he did without that kind of explicit parodic intention – if you just accepted that he knew exactly what he was doing – would it be better? even that much different?
I don’t think it would be all that different – and if you didn’t know anything about Ed Wood, I’m not sure it would be too hard to make a case he meant it like that. It works perfectly well if you say he was Guy Maddin before the fact, instead of saying, he was trying to be Val Lewton (or some other low budget filmmaker, making the best of his material), and just wasn’t good enough. I’ve seen this film in theaters, with people trying to make fun of it live – but what can you say to make it funnier? I used to be a fairly faithful MST3K fan – but I can’t imagine they could make this more entertaining than it is. I have seen parodies of Z grade films – how many parodies come up with anything funnier than what is here? The continuity issues, the sets, the acting, the clunky dialogue, Criswell’s speeches, Tor Johnson getting stuck coming out of his grave – can you improve on that? It’s one of the reasons Ed Wood (the movie) works so well – Tim Burton generally gives you Ed Wood’s films themselves, pretty straight. There’s some backstage comedy, but he doesn’t have to change much of what’s on screen. You can see the sets wobbling in the films – seeing them backstage is really just repeating the jokes.
Though of course, in the film itself, they aren’t jokes, they’re mistakes. But who cares? they are still funny. And sometimes – maybe more than mistakes. Maybe. Wood does try to write jokes – most of them don’t come off, whether because they are badly written or the actors can’t put them over – but some of them work. They work as meta jokes, at least. And sometimes – especially around the edges of the story – they work better than that. How much of the oddball details, or even the goofy action (cops scratching their heads with their guns, say) are intended as jokes? There’s a lot of it – the body falling off its stretcher during the saucer flyby; the drunks reading about saucers over Hollywood; the weird little asides “let’s ball it up in Albuquerque.” It is full of strange little details that don’t come off as just incompetent – they come off as absurd. Meanwhile, the dialogue sometimes slips into explicit metafiction, commenting directly on the action. It’s sometimes innocuous, like people at a funeral asking why the wife is buried in the ground and the husband in a crypt – but at other times, it’s more thematically relevant. Like all the talk about violence.
That’s what makes the question of what is intentional and what isn’t, and whether it matters, complicated – the fact that under all the nonsense, there is a pretty serious theme going on. The film certainly builds up to some directly anti-nuke speechifying by the aliens – but its woven into the story all along. “Are big guns the usual way of welcoming visitors?” the captain asks Colonel Edwards, during the big saucer attack early in the film. It keeps coming back: Colonel Edwards saying he has to believe “in what I saw and shot at.” Jeff’s reaction – “if I see any little green men, I’ll shoot first and ask questions later.” The aliens give it back, though: “how can any race be so stupid?” Eros asks on the tape; “all you of earth are idiots” – “your stupid minds! stupid! stupid! stupid!”
So Jeff slugs him.
The truth is, as science fiction – well, the plot is nonsense of the highest order, resurrecting the dead to march to the capitals of earth and do, well, something – but it’s nonsense with a surprising edge. It takes a big chunk of the plot from films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, with their benevolent (but arrogant and rather impractical) aliens coming to save or damn humanity – but gives it more of an edge. It’s more cynical – humans are more instinctively self-destructively violent; the aliens are even preachier and ruder, and not exactly slow to reach for the decomposition rays themselves. All that stupidity and violence (and let’s not forget misogyny – earthlings and spacemen alike are quick to put uppity women in their place, even if the women seem rather smarter than the rest of them in fact) is played out, and remarked on. People act like idiots, and someone else is sure to say so. And under it all – Eros is right – humans keep building bigger and better bombs, to the point they can wipe out themselves, and maybe more – and can’t seem to do a thing to stop it, and won’t listen to anyone telling them otherwise…
There is all that. But there is also this, which is also something that Burton’s Ed Wood puts across: the sheer pleasure of filmmaking that comes across from Wood’s films. That is true for all of his 50s output – the sense that at some level, he does not care if they are good films or not, because the product is not as important as the act of making the films. That is one of the clearest things they have in common with the camp and art films they half remind me of – the sense of the pleasure of making films that comes through in John Waters’ or Luc Moullet’s or Guy Maddin’s films, or even lesser practitioners like Jared Hess. (A subject I keep coming back to.) These are films about making films: the act of making this film is what counts. There is art devoted to this idea – Michel Gondry’s career seems to be built on it; obviously Ed Wood depicts it, and the complete abandonment to the material of filmmaking is certainly one of the things that separates directors like Maddin from Ed Wood. But Wood is the real thing, the way Moullet’s films are, and Waters’ – films where the film you see is almost a documentary about making a film (for no money at all.) Anything worth doing is worth doing badly – and really, the act of making these films is what really makes them exciting. In Plan 9, you can see the act of making the film through the film – the cheap sets, the one take acting, the accidents, the recycled footage. You can see how Wood wrote the story, dialogue, Criswell’s narration around the stock footage he could find. You see it in some of his story telling – the stock footage, the stripped down sets for things like the airplane cockpit or the space ship, that indicate the location, without really trying to depict it. He’s telling you the story with whatever he can find – and, whatever might be wrong with the story itself, he does it. The story moves along, it’s quite compelling at times (however silly) – and once in a while, he really hits something square.
Tor Johnson rising from the grave is one of the most famous sequences in the film, with Johnson getting stuck halfway out of the grave. But the jokes about it hide the fact that it’s a pretty cool sequence. It’s edited cleanly and briskly with some decent footage of not-Lugosi and Vampira chasing poor Mrs. Trent, and the images of Clay’s emergence are surprisingly spooky. Even when Johnson gets stuck, it comes off half comical, and half like a twist, a bit of pacing, drawing it all out a bit longer. Right up to the end, where the gravestone falls into the grave – a bit of absurdity again, since the stone that falls into the grave is nothing at all like the one looming behind Johnson as he emerges, but it’s in moments like that, where the intentions of the scene, the meaning of the scene, clashes with the means of telling it that a lot of the humor, and maybe the joy of the film lives.
And that first shot of Inspector Clay’s head coming out of the ground – it’s a shot to savor.
It makes it a little harder to make fun of Ed Wood. He couldn’t make films to live up to their best moments, and their best ideas, but there are enough moments and ideas to give you some honest pleasures along with the jokes.