ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

"Beware! Take Care!" - The Delirious Poetry of Ed Wood

HOME / #8: Brecht, Godard, Wood
#7: The Nordics
#6: Sex and the French
#5 Sympathy for the Devil
#4: Spotlight on the Spotless Mind Issue
#3: Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child
#2: Masculinity in Crisis Issue
#1: Drunk Feminism Issue
Submission Guidelines
Acidemic Films / Videos
Contact Us
Ze Staff

Budd Wilkins

Learn to see the worst films: they are sometimes sublime.
Ado Kyrou, Surrealism in the Cinema

Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep.
He eats little boys! Puppy dog tails and big... fat... snails... Beware.
Bela Lugosi, Glen or Glenda
Precisely what sort of sublimity can we expect from films that are routinely accorded the dubious status of the worlds worst, those Golden Turkey Award recipients and perpetual residents of the IMDB Bottom 100, among which pride of place is almost inevitably given to the works of that "auteur of the awful," Edward D. Wood, Jr.? Whenever a film critic--especially one as indebted to the principles of surrealism as Ado Kyrou--invokes a philosophically loaded term like the sublime in order to provoke inquiry, we should probably take a moment to investigate its implications. The locus classicus for this discussion can be found in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, wherein Burke describes the sublime thus: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime." Thus while the beautiful is boringly well-balanced, the sublime topples over into the abyss of excess.

Certainly Wood's films are "conversant about terrible objects," since they all participate to some extent in the well-worn tropes of the horror genre. Even his first, most explicitly autobiographical film, Glen or Glenda, a semi-documentary account of one man's psychological struggle with transvestitism, traffics in the trappings and grammar of the horror film in its key scenes. Moreover, watching Woods films requires little in the way of an aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful, what with their shoddy direction, cheapjack effects, and wooden acting. Nevertheless, their value as negative test cases (what not to do as an aspiring filmmaker) isn't the only wellspring of their enduring popularity. Their delirious poetry arises from giddy excess, a profligacy in word and image that's entirely consonant with Kyrou's surrealist sensibilities: that sinister urge (as one of Woods most provocative titles would have it) to thwart the stranglehold of narrative causality, chart unconscious dream states, and generally interrogate the intersection of death and desire. In all these regards, Glen or Glenda constitutes an exemplary case history.

Glen or Glenda: A Strange and Curious Case
Pitched somewhere between documentary verisimilitude and Gothic fever dream, Glen or Glenda is an unwieldy, Janus-faced beast, its divided nature and approach (apt for a film predicated on a dual personality) announced from the bizarrely bifurcated opening scene. What follows will be a close reading of the incongruous imagery and overheated dialogue, foregrounding formal juxtapositions that clash and resound throughout the first five minutes of its running time. Afterward, I will examine the astonishing dream sequence that announces the psychological climax of the films first part. For, true to its bipartite nature, Glen or Glenda spreads its soupçon of authorial autobiography across not one but two case histories.

The film begins with post-credits disclaimer card that concludes: "This is a picture of stark realism---taking no sides---but giving you the facts---All the facts---as they are today....You are society---JUDGE YE NOT...." Just the sort of preamble that was often tacked onto lurid exploitation pictures with a more-or-less superficial educational component. Viewers in 1953 would have reasonably established one set of expectations, only to quickly revise them once the scene has been set by the next shot.

Fade in on The Scientist (Bela Lugosi) glaring into the camera, his face filling the frame in close-up. The next shot shows him seated in a wingback chair before a roaring fire, a massive and ancient tome nestled in his lap. Solemnly, he intones, "Man's constant groping of things unknown, drawing from the endless reaches of time, brings to light many startling things. Startling because they seem new, but most are not new to the science of the ages!" Stock footage of a lightning blast (reused in practically every subsequent Wood film) punctuates this ejaculation. Cut abruptly to Lugosi in a laboratory, busy mixing smoky liquids in a beaker. Lest the lab apparatus seem too newfangled, there's a skull perched atop an hourglass in the foreground. Holding aloft his alchemical retort, Lugosi triumphantly declares: "A life has begun!"

The next shot finds Lugosi back in his chair. The shot occupies only the top half of the frame, below him a crowded and noisy street scene takes up the bottom half. Again we are invited to ponder dividedness by the formal elements of the film itself. Lugosi delivers this wonkily ponderous assessment of humanity: "People. All going somewhere. All with their own thoughts, their own ideas. All with their own personalities. One is wrong because he does right, one is right because he does wrong!" Lugosi musters all his visibly flagging forces to exhort the masses: "Pull the string! Dance to that which one is created for!" Cut again to Lugosi in his chair, as he gazes aloft as though listening for something. A baby squeals off-screen as he says, "A new day has begun. A new life has begun." The infantile squeal is echoed by police sirens blaring off-screen, followed by a lap dissolve to a new scene: A transvestite lies inert on a divan, as Lugosi morosely concludes, "A life is ended."

Exactly what it all means from any baseline thematic or narrative standpoint remains (and will remain) suitably unclear. Wood isn't interested in quickly setting a recognizable scene, or he'd avail himself of the conventional establishing shot/master shot structure to situate the viewer in a well-defined setting. Instead, were treated to a mélange of discursive modes that deepen the mood rather than clarify the subject matter. Rhetorically, the prologue makes prominent, almost incantatory use of repetition (insistently hammering away at that "new"), even tossing in an ethically paradoxical chiasmus (wrong, right, right, wrong) for novelty's sake. The incorporation of stock footage is another Wood trademark, muddying the waters of auteurist originality by freely annexing prefab imagery, further indication that his individual dream life flowed permeably into that of the collective cinematic dream factory.

The dream sequence that concludes Glen or Glendas first part takes up about 15 minutes in a film that only runs 65, a profligate time expenditure indicative of the dreams importance as a free-standing structural and rhetorical set piece. Like Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel's surrealist short Un chien andalou, which is also structured along the lines of a freeform dream, this sequence serves as a trenchant commentary on erotic obsession and its frustration. Where Buñuel's film locates this battlefield on an interpersonal plane (the struggle between man and woman, composed of images derived from both his and Dalis dream lives), Wood situates it also in an intrapersonal psychic space, with Glen caught between the halves of what radical psychotherapist R. D. Laing called the divided self. As we shall see, the struggle is not only between man and woman, that is, Glen (Ed Wood) and his girlfriend Barbara (Dolores Fuller), but equally between the Glen and Glenda aspects of Glen's psyche.

Analyzing its component parts, we find that the dream divides nicely into four segments, analogous to the movements in a sonata or symphony. In the first part, initially indistinguishable from the naturalism of the previous scene, Glenda returns home from a shopping excursion. At the sound of a thunderclap, she collapses. Lugosi, gripping the arms of his chair, sternly exhorts: Beware! Take care! Conventional (indeed, stock) images of impending peril now give way to an objectified, symbolic rendering of the anxiety: Barbara lies trapped beneath a dead tree trunk in the middle of the living room, while in the background the fireplace and artwork hanging behind her are tilted at a wonky canted angle. The domestic space is thus awry, and the oppressive weight of the impotent phallus (dead tree), the unconsummated relationship, impedes progress. Naturally, the feminine Glenda cannot budge it. Only masculine Glen can.

The imminent impasse overcome, the scene shifts to a stylized wedding ceremony, shot in exaggerated slow motion against a black backdrop, relieved only by a pair of unlit sconces that flank the officiating reverend. The Devil appears. Lugosi, scowling, inquires, "Tell me, dragon, do you eat little boys?" From a poeticized personal metaphor, we move to a cultural symbol: the devil or dragon that personifies evil. Cut to a close-up on Glen, lit in moody chiaroscuro, looking fearful. Childish voices repeat "Puppy dog tails! Everything nice!" and laugh mockingly.

These references are to a popular nursery rhyme, native to England and originating somewhere in the early 19th century, called "What Are Little Boys Made Of?" According to its doggerel, boys come from snips and snails and puppy dog tails, while girls derive from sugar and spice and everything nice. The scene makes two interesting alterations to the conventional rhyme: first, it substitutes the exaggeratedly phallic big fat snails for snips and snails, and then, when an air of anxiety holds sway, it conflates the attributes in a mocking manner. Glen is unsure what it is that makes him a man, and this uncertainty takes the form of the Accuser, as the Devil is often conventionally portrayed.

Now the second part of the dream moves into the social sphere, a movement already presaged by the adoption of cultural symbols and popular poetry descriptive of socially constructed gender roles. For some time, Glen doesn't even appear in the dream, his role(s) taken up by anonymous men and women: As Lugosi looks on in amusement and jaunty swing music plays, a man puts the whip to a woman reclining on a couch, a scantily clad woman beckons, and another woman performs a striptease. (Cutaway to Glen recoiling in horror and Lugosi scowling). A gagged stripper frees another gagged woman from symbolic crucifixion. The whipped woman writhes on the couch, until the stripper arrives to bind her hands and feet, then gag her (while the music speeds up). Another woman primps in front of a vanity mirror, then writhes on the couch. A masher arrives, and the woman slowly succumbs to his advances. The segment ends with a cutaway to Lugosi. Serving as a sort of visual punch line, he gazes into the camera with raised eyebrows.

These varied tableaux represent various possibilities for erotic gratification and their concomitant frustrations. They can also be considered stages in Glen's passion play, forms of erotic suffering and possible redemption. (Not for nothing does crucifixion, symbol of public humiliation and torture, make its appearance.) These intimate moments are not only polysemic, they're positively polymorphously perverse! After this Sadean smorgasbord, the dream retreats back into the personal, albeit a realm where the individual collides and conflicts with the strictures of the social.

The next shot shows Glen atop a stool in the middle of his living room, which is in complete disarray (the loveseat on which Glen and Barbara were sitting in the pre-dream scene is upended), while howling wind and the repeated, mocking "Big fat snails!" motif can be heard on the soundtrack. An accusatory man and woman appear. Behind them, we see a blackboard with snippets from the nursery rhyme all over it. More accusers appear. At this point, the montage grows more rapid-fire, the shots titled at canted Dutch angles, so that this sequence resembles a noir-horror hybrid. Backed into a corner, Glen tugs at his collar: a gesture that acknowledges both the heat of these accusations and the constricting masculine attire he has been browbeaten into adopting as his own. The Devil reappears as the accusers close in on Glen. Close-up shot of the Devil is out of focus. Backing off slowly, the accusers retreat, and Glenda appears in Glen's place in the corner. Happy music ironically plays on the soundtrack. Barbara enters in a trance. Barbara in different costumes beckons to Glenda from loveseat, before laughing at her because shes dressed in the same outfit. Wood adopts an old-fashioned montage technique reminiscent of German Expressionist films like The Last Laugh for the next series of shots: multiple superimpositions of laughing faces, wagging fingers. Strident music plays, and then Lugosi in voiceover reiterates his Beware! speech, over a close-up of the Devil's face.

The fourth and final movement bookends the first, providing the coda for the entire dream sequence: Glenda collapses again and the shot dissolves to Glenda coming home, her form framed in the vanity mirror seen earlier. She stares aghast at her own reflection, then strips off the wig in horror. The psychiatrist Dr. Alton relates in voiceover: "Glen has made the decision. Glen has decided to tell Barbara of his dual personality." Another way of viewing this fateful moment, and all the wild imagery that precedes it, is as an example of the Jungian journey to the underworld, in which Glen descends into the depths of his psyche, encountering along the way figures from the collective unconscious, a voyage that provides him with an opportunity to reintegrate these various aspects into his Self. Whether viewed under a Freudian or Jungian lens, or some voodoo hodge-podge of the two (guilty as charged!), this is as strong and strange a vision of the human psyche laid bare on celluloid as any better-regarded experimental or avant-garde film. Where more staid cinematic angels fear to tread, Wood would. Would you?

Budd Wilkins writes for Slant and That Obscure Object of Desire: Cinema

Next: The Phantom of Liberty: Val Lewton's GHOST SHIP

Special thanks to 'Wrong Side of the Art' for some of the above stills.

c. 2012 Budd Wilkins. Pictures c. Wade Williams or their individual owners. 

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244