Archive for September 1994

Ed Wood

September 28, 1994

Probably no director — not even Hitchcock — compels more affectionate devotion than does Edward D. Wood, Jr. A cult icon before his time (he died, destitute and alcoholic, in 1978 at the age of 54), Ed Wood wrote and directed some of the most outlandish movies ever made: Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls, and the immortal Plan 9 from Outer Space — a film nobody who’s seen it can talk about without giggling and highly recommending it. Having seen some of Wood’s output, I think his movies are certainly bad, but not really “the worst films ever made” — a condescending label. What sets Wood’s bad movies apart from other bad movies of their time (and there were many in the ’50s) is that they’re so surreal, so earnestly didactic, and so innocently unaware of their own badness that they’re more entertaining than nine out of ten movies made with the necessary time, money, and talent.

If Wood had been a boring man in private life, he might today be a completely obscure figure — like Phil Tucker, director of Robot Monster, a 3-D turkey that’s at least as laughable as Plan 9. Wood, however, had definite quirks. Aside from the above-mentioned alcoholism (which got worse as his post-Plan 9 career bottomed out), Wood enjoyed dressing in women’s clothes, favoring angora in particular. Legend has it that Wood, a decorated World War II vet, was terrified of being shot down: he didn’t want the medics finding the silky underthings he wore under his uniform. Wood was a misfit and an outsider, the classic “misunderstood” figure, and his movies, chowderheaded as they are, argue fervently for tolerance of those who differ from the “norm.” If you look at Wood’s debut, Glen or Glenda?, you’ll laugh your ass off, but you may also be saddened: This ridiculous plea for compassion was genuinely the best he could do; this man with so much on his mind and in his heart had so little talent to express it.

Ed Wood is an ambiguous figure of fun. It’s easy to laugh at his movies, but it’s tough to laugh at him: His is the depressing story of a man whose reach always exceeded his grasp. In Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton, Wood is presented as a go-getter who may have moved heaven and earth to make piddly little movies everyone laughs at, but, hey, at least he got them made. Stylistically, this is the least daring movie Burton has ever made (though his insistence on filming in black and white is courageous); it certainly doesn’t risk the excesses of Wood’s films. Burton sticks with lush, basic, unfussy images throughout. Obviously, he identifies with Wood the obsessed, misunderstood filmmaker, and Wood takes a place in Burton’s gallery of misfits alongside Pee-wee, the hapless ghosts in Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne, Edward Scissorhands, and Jack Skellington. Yet Wood doesn’t really fit in there, either.

As played by Johnny Depp, Wood has a smile for everyone and hardly ever loses his temper. He’s a sweet guy with a deep soul — if only anyone were sensitive enough to see it. This harmless-creative-martyr aspect of Burton’s work — James Dean as van Gogh — almost wrecked Edward Scissorhands, and it drains out much of what should be striking in Ed Wood. This isn’t Depp’s fault. After a string of hazy slacker roles, he comes through with a clear-eyed, firm-handshake performance, and it’s fun to see him so vibrant. Depp doesn’t have Wood’s bland, lumpen Errol Flynn handsomeness; his features are more delicate, and sometimes he uses them to great comic effect — he employs a wonderful fixed grin of nervousness (it’s meant to be a confident, reassuring smile) whenever someone gives Wood a reality slap. Ed Wood has abundant affection for its subject, and Depp is finally trapped by that affection. He can’t make Wood much more than a nice guy.

We know from reading Rudolph Grey’s book Nightmare of Ecstasy (a collection of anecdotes from Wood’s friends and associates, upon which Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander based their screenplay), and from watching the documentary Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora, that most everyone who knew Wood considered him, yes, a nice guy, but also a little strange and more than a little self-destructive. Burton’s Ed Wood is a sanitized view of Wood’s most fertile period (the mid- to late-’50s), and it’s most enjoyable when Burton recreates the cardboard sets Wood filmed on; the movie at its best is a loving ode to moviemaking fever. Yet from this film, you’d think Wood was only interested in monsters and angora. He also had a sensationalistic streak a mile wide, and some of his lesser-known films, which he either wrote or directed, have titles like Jail Bait and Orgy of the Dead and The Violent Years (about an all-girl gang) and The Sinister Urge (about the evils of pornography). He also, in the squalid twilight of his career, made hardcore porn — see Necromania, available on DVD from Fleshbot. (Or don’t.)

Wood was caught in his own low-rent obsessions; they’re the source of his enduring appeal — his cheesy style is linked to his choice of subject matter — but they also make his movies both funny and sad. His obsessions, which were definitely ’50s-sexist, appear in one form or another in all his films but not particularly in Ed Wood. Burton’s Wood is a gentleman who, we think, would never go on to direct and even appear in chintzy soft-core bondage movies (as the actual Wood did — the footage in Look Back in Angora of a drunk and bloated Wood grovelling on the floor before buxom women is unbearably depressing). Probably with the best and kindest intentions, Burton gives us a Wood who never was. It’s refreshing to see Burton in a relatively upbeat mood, but he picked the wrong story to give an optimistic spin.

Ed Wood does have an outlaw soul, but it has nothing to do with Wood, Burton, or Depp. Scraping for money to fund Glen or Glenda?, Wood meets the legendary Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), now a decrepit, all-but-forgotten morphine addict. Lugosi’s involvement greases the wheels for three Wood movies, only one of which actually used Lugosi as a legitimate character. (Wood shot footage of Lugosi that he eventually used, after Lugosi’s death, for Plan 9; for long shots, Wood used a cloaked chiropractor two feet taller than Lugosi.) Were Wood and Lugosi exploiting each other — Wood for Lugosi’s dimmed star power, Lugosi for a chance to act again (and the money to buy morphine)? To his credit, Burton allows that the Wood-Lugosi relationship began as mutual exploitation, but then he lets it deepen, and their odd friendship — two outcasts clinging to each other — is the real core of Ed Wood.

Raging against Hollywood, his rival Boris Karloff, his age and obsolescence, everything his life has become, Bela Lugosi is a great tragicomic character — the kind of character Burton should have allowed Wood to be. Wisely, Burton lets Martin Landau take over the middle section of the film. Landau gives what I’m tempted to call the performance of his life (though he was equally powerful in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Tucker). In general, he refuses to soften or sentimentalize Lugosi (which may upset Lugosi’s fans); he’s not afraid to be pathetic, abrasive, and hammy. It’s a fully rounded performance, almost Shakespearean in its extremes of emotion and rhetoric (his profane swipes at Karloff are wonderful). The scene of Lugosi delivering his corny Bride of the Monster speech on the sidewalk will go down as a cult-classic movie moment. Landau unleashes the inane monologue, flooding it with conviction and passion that cut right through the mawkishness of the scene (which is meant to sadden us with the irony of Lugosi’s rediscovering his actor’s zeal just before he dies).

Tim Burton has many gifts, but telling the truth isn’t one of them. That’s what makes him a great fantasist. Taking off with invented characters — either his own (Edward Scissorhands) or others’ (Pee-wee, Batman) — Burton can spin webs of metaphor, phantom images that get around our rational minds and plug into our sloppy, masochistic feelings of being alone and misunderstood. Ed Wood doesn’t give him many images to conjure with, and the movie’s tone is wobbly and jokey yet reverent. Wood is probably the first (and, let’s hope, the only) character Burton has ever had to tone down to fit his design. This subject and this director are not a good match, despite the surface similarities, and Wood’s complexity as a person — his messy, contradictory, wild inner life — resists Burton’s efforts to play it safe. Wood himself would have loved Ed Wood. That’s what’s wrong with it.

The Shawshank Redemption

September 23, 1994

As I write this in February 2007, over a decade after its initial release, The Shawshank Redemption has taken on the status of a modern classic. People have paid website tributes to it; it routinely appears near the top of the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies list (as of this moment it holds steady at #2, trailing behind The Godfather; in the past it has resided at the very top). All this for a movie that flopped theatrically, won no Oscars, and had a decidedly mixed critical reception. It has become, if you will, the Forrest Gump that is acceptable to worship because it didn’t take the box office and Academy by storm. People can gush over the movie (which is really no less manipulative than Gump) and feel they’re backing an underdog. It is the large found object of mainstream movie fans, a cult phenomenon that your grandparents could appreciate.

Not having seen it since its 1994 debut, I popped in the DVD just tonight, to see what the fuss was about. Had I missed something all those years ago? I remembered it as a good, solid, well-crafted drama, but certainly not one of the greatest films of all time. Having now revisited it, I stand by my 1994 assessment. The Shawshank Redemption, the first theatrical feature written and directed by Frank Darabont (he’d previously directed Buried Alive, a nastily entertaining made-for-TV thriller starring Tim Matheson and Jennifer Jason Leigh), is based on a 91-page story by Stephen King called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” which he wrote shortly after finishing The Dead Zone and eventually published in his collection Different Seasons. (The same collection has also yielded the fine films Stand by Me and Apt Pupil.) Darabont had also, in the early ‘80s, adapted the King story “The Woman in the Room” as a short film, and of course he went on to direct The Green Mile, another King prison drama. All King has to do is write one more, and Darabont can adapt it and complete the trilogy.

The aspect of The Shawshank Redemption that its admirers seem drawn to, first and foremost, is its transcendent theme explicitly stated in the film’s tag line: “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.” (Indeed, the section containing the King story in the collection is headed “Hope Springs Eternal.” It’s interesting to note that “Apt Pupil” is headed “Summer of Corruption,” while “The Body” — basis for Stand by Me — is headed “Fall from Innocence.”) Hope is a major motif in story and film — the dangers of hope, the necessity of hope. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) appears before us as one of fiction’s dustiest archetypes, the unjustly imprisoned saint (King dusted it off again for The Green Mile with John Coffey). Andy spends nineteen years in jail for a double murder he didn’t commit; his friend (and the story/film’s narrator), Red (Morgan Freeman), is actually guilty of murder — though in King’s story we’re told what he did, whereas in the movie we don’t find out, presumably to preserve our sympathy for Red. For much of the film we’re watching two sane, civilized men forging a friendship among savages, which include a cartoonishly brutal guard (Clancy Brown) and a weaselly warden (Bob Gunton) who in this telling isn’t merely a corrupt hypocrite — he’s also a murderer.

Darabont lets the movie breathe; he takes his time, though the film still feels compressed (it’s amusing to watch Robbins and Freeman “age” over the years, getting only a little more stylishly gray every 20 minutes or so). He’s a gifted director, but I’m not sure of him as a writer. His dialogue, when it doesn’t come verbatim from King, sounds inspired by King; when the guard refers to “God and sonny Jesus,” which he never does in the original story, it’s a classic King-ism. What sticks in the craw, though, are the scenes he adds to the story — none of which do much except lengthen the film and add plastic pathos.

The major addition, of course, is Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore in a terrific twilight performance that takes some of the starch out of the character), an old-timer inmate who runs the prison library and keeps a pet crow. Brooks (under a different name) is only alluded to in King’s story, in an anecdote about a prisoner who set his pet bird free upon being released; the bird was later found dead in the prison yard — it couldn’t survive on the outside. King meant this to symbolize the lifers who, upon release, can’t deal with life outside prison walls — they’ve gotten too used to the routine and don’t know how to function in a world where they’re no longer respected for their lengthy time in jail. Darabont had originally planned to have Brooks’ crow die, but decided against it.

As it is, Brooks gets his own subplot in which he is released and we see the tough, sad time he has in his brief existence outside Shawshank. This is touching in and of itself, but the movie seems to stop dead for a few minutes so that we can follow Brooks to his lonely end. Later, much too coincidentally, Red will be released, get a job at the same supermarket where Brooks worked (it looks like he’s even bagging at the same terminal), and get the same room where Brooks stayed — he carves his own name next to “Brooks Was Here” on the wall. If the crow had been found dead (symbolizing Brooks’ own inability to survive outside), and if Red had stumbled upon Brooks’ old room later, we would’ve been able to deduce Brooks’ fate without Darabont slamming the brakes on his movie to spoonfeed it to us.

In the other addition, Andy locks himself in the prison library and plays some classical music over the loudspeakers. Every scarred hardcase in the yard stands stock still, presumably moved to their souls. This isn’t remotely credible, and hints at Darabont’s Capra-esque streak, later to be given full bloom in the execrable The Majestic. Darabont has taken King’s rather hardboiled, Papillon-style tale of escape and upgraded it to uplifting Oscar bait. As it happened, Oscar didn’t bite, being too distracted by Gump and its opposite number Pulp Fiction that year. Darabont is a humane director, as he showed in the rather touching “Woman in the Room” (his best work to date), and he and master cinematographer Roger Deakins map out some appealing compositions of Kubrickian symmetry. He gets a convincingly haunted yet (sorry) hopeful performance out of Tim Robbins, though he also polishes Morgan Freeman’s halo a bit too much. This great actor deserves richer meat to sink his teeth into.

The bit where Dufresne stands in the rain and lets it wash off the mud and grime of imprisonment is presented without irony, though Raising Arizona had already parodied the cliché seven years earlier. Darabont is sincere to a fault, and that sincerity is what the movie’s fans cherish — it’s an old-school melodrama at heart, sturdy and forthright and upstanding, but without a whisper of complexity or wit. Perhaps movies have gotten so cluttered, sarcastic, and insecure that a movie so simple and squarely certain of its own virtue can be lionized as a classic.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

September 7, 1994

In its infinite wisdom, the Academy ignored Jennifer Jason Leigh’s towering work in this wistful movie about the Algonquin Round Table. Perhaps she was being punished for being punished too often in movies, but there were no finer female performances in 1994. Leigh plays the culmination of her entire suffering-wounded-woman career: Dorothy Parker, who could only laugh while she was bleeding. Leigh’s version of Parker matches the masochistic romantic-cynic most of Parker’s modern readers envision; every inflection cries “Pity me.” But it’s Leigh’s gift that we don’t feel she herself is soliciting our pity, but rather that Parker wanted and didn’t want pity — she was a genius at self-pity. It’s an amazingly complex and easily misreadable performance. The film is set chiefly in the ‘20s and late ‘30s, but when it progresses into Parker’s autumn years, Leigh sadly can no more transcend her unconvincing old-age make-up than any other actor could. Still, she holds this anecdotal, often frustratingly diffuse movie afloat. We don’t, for instance, get much insight into fellow Round Table wits Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick), Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), or Harold Ross (Sam Robards) beyond the occasional one-liner. But perhaps those men will one day be fortunate enough to have their own stories told on film, and to be played by someone who honors them as much as Leigh honors Dorothy Parker.