Saturday, October 29, 2011

Tim Burton | Ed Wood

artful deceivers
by Douglas Messerli

Scott Alexander and Laarry Karaszewski (screenplay, based on material in Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey), Tim Burton (director) Ed Wood / 1994

Tim Burton (curated by Ron Magliozzi, Jenny He, and Rajendra Roy by The Museum of Modern Art, New York) / I saw the show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on October 27, 2011

 By coincidence Howard and I attended a showing of the art of Tim Burton at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art just a few days before Halloween, the perfect time to take in the drawings, films, photographs, sculptures, puppets, and other artworks of the film director. Including work from the early 1970s to forthcoming work of 2012, one easily recognizes that the somewhat surreal, gothic, sci-fi, and just plain strange images of the young Burbank, California boy (born August 25, 1958), almost naturally transformed into the images Burton has used in his films, particularly in Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands. Indeed, the show includes work from all his films, both early sketches and drawings by Burton himself as well as clips, objects, and drawings by his associates that were used for and in those films. Even the Angora sweater worn by both the characters Ed Wood and Dolores Fuller in Burton's film was on view.

     Some of these works, particularly the puppets and other strange constructions, as well as an entire visual environments that function somewhat like carnival sideshows, are all quite arresting—as well as strangely beautiful. But after a short while, the fact becomes clear that what may have begun as classroom (and clearly after class) doodles turned into a lifetime activity. In short, the boy never grew up, and remains, at least in his own mind, a complete outsider even today. There is something embarrassing in witnessing room after room of the same thing, sometimes more interestingly rendered, but always with a similar mix of Edward Gorey, Dr. Seuss, and Edward Sorel imagery, transformed into outlandishness.

Do we really need a showing of over 700 objects from this filmmaker? The show is less an art presentation than it is a shrine to Burton's vision. And on the day we attended it was filled by people, some of whom looked like Burton's ghouls, starring wondrously at the walls as if witnessing images of the outsiders they see themselves to be. Personally, I felt a bit uncomfortable in the company of these works and beings—less because of the strangeness of the images and the artist's fascination with death than because of the ultimate lack of true significance. Feeling like an outsider is perhaps common to most individuals, in particular the young; but to celebrate it as Burton does, somehow makes it absolutely ordinary and, in the long run, representative of a kind of nostalgic desire for assimilation. Perhaps that is why most of Burton's figures seek what they cannot have, the placid lawns punctuated by the streets and driveways of American suburbia, the world in which I grew up, but where I never wanted to live.

     Nonetheless, Howard and I have enjoyed several of Burton's films, and that same night we again watched Ed Wood, my favorite of his movies to date.

     Ed Wood, like most of Burton's figures is a true outsider, a born loser without the ability to capably write, to create narrative, or direct either theater or film, as well as being apparently unable to artfully think—although he clearly loves the films, or at least the image of Orson Welles. In a sense Wood is the apotheosis of Burton's outsiders, less skillful than Edward Scissorhands, without the burning revenge of Sweeney Todd, nor the ghostly cleverness of Beetlejuice's Maitlands, he is a product of and believer in the American Dream, and, accordingly,  is so removed from reality that he perceives himself as a true winner. Wood is an American optimist in a long line of such figures dating back at least to Poe and Melville—a confidence man who swallows his own story.

     In fact, Ed Wood is so pathetic in his lack of vision that he is absolutely crazy, the way all great poets, as William Carlos Williams insists, "must go crazy." And in that fact he is as loveable and endearing as any American hero. Johnny Depp, who could probably charm the Devil himself—and perhaps already has—is a perfect actor for Wood, confidently smiling his way through all adversities (even without his dentures) as if he had been immersed in Dale Carnegie theology. His pathology is, in fact, a kind of religiosity; he is utterly unable to see anything but the bright side of life. Facing a negative review of his first directorial effort of a play he has written, Wood observes:

                   Look, he got some nice things to say here. "The soldiers' 
                   costumes were very realistic." That's positive!
To which his gay, cynical friend, Bunny Breckinridge (excellently realized by Bill Murray), replies: "Rave of the century."

     Later, when told by a producer that his film was the worst he has ever seen, Wood comes back: "Well, my next one will be better."

     Such utter faith may be a kind of madness, but it, nonetheless, draws people to him, even though every last one of his friends are unusual and perverse. Evidently Dolores Fuller—who died this year in May—was, as she described herself, quite conventional. In reality, she evidently loved Wood, helping him immensely in his career, but was uncomfortable with his transvestism and was determined to have a successful career herself. She did just that, writing several songs for Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, and others. Burton correctly perceived, however, that the character in the film had to be a kind of foil for all the other strange figures with whom Wood surrounds himself, turning Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) into a kind of revengeful, shrewish scold who, herself, was a failure.

     Given Wood's friends one wouldn't blame anyone for reacting as does the film's version of Fuller. Wood, a heterosexual transvestite, clearly surrounded himself by gay and transvestite figures such as Bunny Breckinridge, whose great desire throughout the movie is to have a sex operation—"Goodbye Penis!" His attempts are hilariously unsuccessful.

     Wood's attraction to actor Bella Lugosi—particularly at a time in Lugosi's life when, seen as a has-been, he was addicted to morphine—is nearly inevitable, as the chance meeting quickly turns into an affable friendship, Lugosi (skillfully performed by Martin Landau) finally finds someone who will pass no judgment upon him and give the him his last feeble opportunities to act.

     There is something fateful, moreover, about Wood's strange entourage including the absurdly inaccurate psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), the Swedish professional wrestler Tor Johnson, Maili Nurmi (Vampira), and Conrad Brooks, who played in Wood's early movies and almost every really bad B movie after. Wood's inversion of the outsider, his perception that the unusual was a kind of normality, or at least a gift that would help him in his artistry, clearly served as a magnet to the strangest of beings. The idea, moreover, that Wood could convince a pragmatic huckster such as Georgie Weiss and churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to support his outrageous projects is testimony to his dynamic personality. In real life he cannot have been that far apart from someone like Depp in his convincing performance.

     That the films he directed—spliced together with stock footage, bad sets, bad acting, and near-illiterate scripts, may have been some the worst films ever made—but conceived, as they were out of such a passionate desire for filmmaking, are, in the end, redeemed, artful creations even in their own clumsy artlessness. That is, I suggest, Burton's major theme here, as in most of his films portraying losers such as Wood, the physically challenged such as Edward Scissorhands, and even the dead as artful deceivers.

     In this instance, Burton has accomplished his goal less with fantastical images than with a kind of realist euphoria, transforming the black and white world that serves as a backdrop usually for dramatic or even tragic events into a kind of comic ecstasy. Even Howard Shore's score, with its references to Wood's original films, gets into the spirit of things, zithering up Theremin chords that tickle the eardrums.

     In the end, one wishes that the world were more like what Wood wants it to be. After just having suffered a terrible premiere of his failed movie, Wood asks his current girlfriend, Kathy O'Hara to get married:

                          Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Right now. Let's go to Vegas.
                          Kathy O'Hara: But, Eddie. It's pouring rain and the car top
                                   is stuck.
                          Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Phooey. It's only a five hour drive 
                                   and it'll probably stop by the time we get to the 
                                   desert. Heck, it'll probably stop by the time we get 
                                   around the corner. Let's go.

How can you not go along with him? Edward D. Wood, Jr. is a solid lunatic, just what the world most needs.

Los Angeles, October 31, 2011

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