With the culmination of the month-long Worst or “Worst” feature on some of the alleged worst films ever made, what a better way to return to the weekly Midnight Screening series than a great film about the guy who made some of the alleged worst movies ever made…
As a rule, Tim Burton’s interpretation of “film” works best when it has a guiding light and a vision. In the early 1990s, Burton was about the most visionary mainstream American director you could find, doing nothing less than sneaking away with oodles of money from the Hollywood producers he played uneasy servant to and using that money to paint his personal fixations all over the screen. In recent years, he has become a passe parody of his former self, creating gluttonous products that feel more like someone’s idea of a “Tim Burton film” than the real deal. But the passion, the lusty Americana, and the campy, Christmas tree fuel-for-the-fire went away long ago. Money, as it so often does with directors, has made Burton a blase Hollywood director-for-hire. But for this enfant terrible, boredom was not always the rule of thumb…
In the early 1990s, Burton’s projects were plainly his and his only, and the corpus of works he produced throughout the better half of the decade had more to say about cinema and fiction than any other corpus at the time. His Batman is not a particularly good film, but it was particularly exciting cinema of the boldly presentational and warped variety. Edward Scissorhands, his deliriously sweet homage/satire/ exploration of middle Americana pop culture and the Gothic horror of the mid-’50s, may be the most gushingly, honestly romantic film of the decade, and it introduced the Burton mission: make a film about a subject in the style of that subject, striving to study it and become it rather than sit atop the subject (like most Hollywood films would do) and say something about it from a carefully manicured distance.
With Batman Returns, just about the kookiest, most insurrectionist Hollywood blockbuster ever filmed and to this day the best live-action Batman adaptation, he had a ball taking the Bat back to its noirish roots in German Expressionism with some of the finest angular sets and high-contrast shadows the decade managed to nightmare-up straight from the bowels of Hell. The 1996 effort Mars Attacks was, more than a parody, a knowing recreation of mid-1950s atomic-alien cinema. But it was with Ed Wood that the director tackled cinema at its most unrestrained and its most failed. With Ed Wood, that Burton guiding light was as front-and-center as in any of his films. His intentions were pure: pay homage to the man who made Burton Burton by studying everything about his films and painting that study all over the screen in garish, ostentatious strokes.
But first, the obvious contention: Ed Wood is a biopic, but it is the most knowing kind of biopic. It works like Michael Curtiz’ misunderstood classic Yankee Doodle Dandy by being not a work of its subject but a work by its subject. Just as Yankee Doodle Dandy was a deliberately lightweight escape to episodic matinee fluff that recaptured the spirit of George Cohan, Ed Wood is a study of Ed Wood the man by studying what Ed Wood sunk all of his personal passions into: his films. For this reason, Burton is not only engaging in rigorous psychological study, but a literate and manic textual interpretation of a subject and their work by recreating their work as the subject would have. Burton is, in other words, not tackling Ed Wood the man from the outside, as most biopics do, but from within, trying to read the Wood aesthetic past itself to become an expression of all that was implicit about Wood the man in his films.
Which brings us to Wood, the psychosexual ringleader of one of the great film cottage industries and a band of merry, untalented women and men doing their damnedest to not do much of anything at all. Or rather, to not achieve anything at all, but to do as much as they could to achieve so little, which is itself an achievement of sorts. In other words, Wood’s films are haphazard messes, sure, but they are idiosyncratic messes of overflowing cinema. While nothing he ever did congealed into anything close to competence, the ingredients he put in were so vigorously stewed together that the act of their existence becomes a note in itself. Wood’s films are awful, but that he made them, and that no one else could have made them like him, is usually enough.
Which is where Burton comes in, deliberately rejecting narrative and good sense like the man he is depicting and moving from scene to scene with virtually no idea of how they link together. Not because Burton doesn’t know how to tell a story, mind you, but because he is exposing Wood’s storytelling method. And he is exposing what that storytelling method says about the poor, lost, ever-challenged, lonely soul that was Ed Wood, a man who channeled his silent personal fixations and his often tragic inability to cope with the world into his own messy, borderline-schizophrenic films. Wood’s films were, as with many directors, an attempt to make sense of a world that had left him out in the cold, and importantly, making sense of that world in the only way he knew how: by creating a new filmic world that reorganized that world to his liking.
It follows then that Burton, who spent his early career doing much of the same reorganization but with much more talent and judicious restriction, goes about making Wood’s film with an almost avant-garde conception of disconcerted editing and storytelling that varies from laconic and nonchalant to spirited and demanding by the scene. Following Wood as he directs several of his much-beloved 1950s films and develops a conflicted relationship with his shamed, combative star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau in a scene-stealing performance), the film eschews narrative for a sort-of freewheeling improvisational take on character and mood that establishes a formlessness very much akin to Wood’s films themselves.
Take Burton’s later films like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for instance, where he simply coats a relatively mundane, streamlined narrative structure with a thin layer of garish visuals to convey a “radical” treatment of the material. It is easy, in comparison, to see the heart of a man thinking about cinema in Ed Wood, which is a visual showpiece but also expresses its off-kilter visuals right down to its very structure. If his later films put on weird airs, Ed Wood understands how to trouble and torment and befuddle and bemuse right down to the way it assembles scenes together.
Not that those visuals aren’t great, mind you, taking the form of Wood’s very lusty, musty, hyper-stylized, under-formed interpretation of the world and serving as an expression of how Wood saw the world. When the shadows are just an inch too black or large, and when the set design is just a touch too stagey and non-locationy, Burton is constructing a “fake” world on and off set to expose how similar Wood’s films were to his view of reality, and thus his own life, or at least his subjective interpretation of that life. In other words, take note how little the quality of the melodramatic writing and imagery (not to mention the feverish acting) changes between when Burton is recreating one of Wood’s films and when he is simply showing Wood behind the set. Burton refuses to film the everyday scenes in a more realist manner because he wants to expose something about the way Wood had subsumed his view of film into his everyday reality, about the way Wood no longer saw reality like we mere mortals did. The heated melodrama, jaunty and childlike to the point where it becomes unnerving and creepy (you can see the man who directed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure all over the screen), exists not only in Wood’s films but in Wood’s everyday life. Wood’s sets are manifestations of his world, a diabolical carnival of inner psychosis (the film’s secret weapon to this extent is the secret weapon of all of Burton’s best films, by which I mean his early ’90s films: cinematographer Stefan Czapsky). This makes Wood’s films more than just bad movies; it makes them a coping mechanism, and a worldview.
Add to this Johnny Depp’s oddball performance of Wood that feels much more like how Wood might cast an actor to play himself than an actual portrayal of Wood, and the metatextual layers run mighty deep. Depp himself, like Burton, has since become a parody of his former being, deliberately rejecting exercise and concision for lazy-day weirdness and portraying overly-broad, obtuse figures without any eye for the why. But in Ed Wood, his nuanced, magnetically worrisome portrayal sells everything about Wood, from the charismatically watchable ringleader to the impractical anti-genius to the manic-depressive scene-to-scene soul who never found a safe, stable middle-ground between recluse and bon vivant. It is a scary, knowing portrayal, but through it all, there is never less than a genuine appreciation for who Wood was, what he represented to filmmakers of the do-it-yourself variety, and a love for the act of being able to depict him on screen.
A love that trickles down from Burton as well. The real reason why Ed Wood fits Burton’s vision so snugly is that, deep down, Burton loves Wood not for any kitsch-infused reason or with any irony, but because he sees in Wood more than several ounces of himself. He sees a director whose films adapted cinema to the personal fixations of their maker, never took no for an answer, and were never afraid to go down any rabbit hole even if common sense told them otherwise. Burton’s work is one of the great odes in all of cinema, and for all it exposes some of Wood’s narcissism and complete inability to point a camera at an object, it is absolutely in love with Ed Wood. It is less a film about Ed Wood than an Old Hollywood B-movie inspired by Ed Wood (a connection made almost explicit in the opening scene). In doing so, it shows that Old Hollywood B-movies were films with much to say about society, and that Ed Wood films ultimately were films with much to say about Ed Wood. The most important fact about Ed Wood, the film, is that it is made with the same effervescence and gleeful charisma that Ed Wood, the man, put into every single shot he ever filmed. You just can’t fake that sort of compassion.