Sunday, 12 May 2019

Glen or Glenda


"Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep."

Some might argue that there's a fine line between genius, as a concept, and insanity, as an actual condition, but Glen or Glenda (1953) is a film that goes some lengths towards establishing this particular line of thought as a genuine rule. As a filmmaker, the legendary Edward D. Wood Jr. was famously considered to be "the worst director in the world"; an unnecessarily cruel legacy initially established by the Medved Brothers before subsequently being carried along by the bozos behind the Golden Raspberry "Awards" and later the makers of the boring Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (1989 - present). Certainly there are moments in Glen or Glenda that might suggest such a title is justified, if not a factual truth; however, if we break away from the accepted narrative for just a second and look at the film from a different perspective, there are treasures to be found here.

In 1957, François Truffaut wrote the following: "The films of the future will be more personal than autobiography, like a confession or a diary. Young filmmakers will speak in the first person in order to tell what happened to them: their first love, a political awakening, a trip, an illness, and so on. Tomorrow's film will be an act of love." In 1953, Edward D. Wood Jr. was already an embodiment of the same philosophy. Glen or Glenda is pure chaotic cinema. It's clunky, poorly acted, choppily edited and makes no dramatic sense whatsoever; but it's also transgressive, forward-thinking and deeply personal to the point of biography.


Glen or Glenda [Edward D. Wood Jr., 1953]:

Throughout Glen or Glenda Wood wrestles with ideas of sexuality and gender identity decades before mainstream filmmakers would ever dare to broach such complex themes. His experiences in World War II, his suburban upbringing, his passion for old monster movies and his deeply complicated relationships with women are each woven in and around the film as if it were a kind of dream or nightmare being conjured up by its wily narrator. The film blurs elements of genre movie, melodrama and documentary (the use of found-footage specifically could be seen as a precursor to Jean-Luc Godard's similar appropriation of second-hand footage in Histoire(s) du cinema [1988-1998], or even Orson Welles's use of stock-footage in his masterpiece F for Fake [1973]), while at the same time seesawing wildly between the "grindhouse" or exploitation traditions and something more avant-garde.

While it's easy to balk at the following suggestion, I've often felt that the line between Glen or Glenda and the later films by David Lynch is incredibly faint. This isn't in any way meant to imply that Wood is as great a filmmaker as Lynch, or that Lynch is as deficient a filmmaker as Wood (depending on where your personal preferences lie), but that there is something in the presentation of Wood's film that finds an affinity in Lynch's own aesthetic; something that comes from the same collision between nostalgic cornball Americana and the filmmaker's own subconscious, with its darkness and perversions. The kinship for moments of stilted performance, with wooden line delivery and dialog that reads as unnatural, affected and loaded with metaphor, or that Wood's film plays like a deconstruction of a conventional 1950s Hollywood melodrama, with its rosy cheeked, clean-cut, "aww shucks!" innocence subverted as the darker underbelly of the human condition reveals itself, can't help but feel like precursors to Lynch's later masterworks, such as Blue Velvet (1986), or the original series of Twin Peaks (1989-1991).

In particular, the nightmare sequence from Wood's film - with its low-frequency soundtrack, its cross dissolves, its use of doubles and doppelgangers, its sexual violence, its continued motif of characters emerging from shadows and fog, and its ghostly devil figure (that could be the Woodsman from Twin Peaks: The Return [2017]) - is absolutely redolent of the Lynchian aesthetic. That such sequences were by all accounts included at the behest of the film's producer, George Weiss, doesn't lessen the unique nature of the film or the sense of it being a personal expression for its director, but rather illustrate the collaborative nature of filmmaking and the malleability of "auteurism" as a genuine theory.


Glen or Glenda [Edward D. Wood Jr., 1953]:


Twin Peaks: The Return - Part 8 [David Lynch, 2017]:

Wood's subsequent films, such as Bride of the Monster (1955) and the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), do more to highlight the deficiencies in the filmmaker's abilities. Robbed of the personal or eccentric touches of the film in question, these later works show Wood as a director attempting to cash-in on the popular trends (plainly speaking, atomic-age science fiction) and finding himself undone by his own comparative limitations. The films lose sight of the individuality explicit in a work like Glen or Glenda, reverting instead to the standard genre tropes and clichés already used (and used well) by better filmmakers. While Glen or Glenda is frequently thrown in with the rest of Wood's work as being incompetent, its lack of technical ability, its low-budget nature and the occasional toadying to exploitation shouldn't be seen as barriers to appreciating the film for its strange imagery, bizarre tone and earnest personal commentary.