Monday, January 14, 2008

Pull the String!

I've started and erased this post about five different times already. I just can't seem to think of how to begin to talk about the cinematic blunder that is Glen or Glenda. My mind is as blank as the faces of all the actors.

This...thing...was the proud work of Ed Wood. Yes, THE Ed Wood. This was his most personal project because it's about his own transvestism. Wood loving wearing women's clothes. He actually plays the one-in-the-same title characters under a false name. He had a Grand Canyon-full of good intentions. That's abundantly clear. There's something very sweet and endearing about his earnestness and oblivion. He really thought he was making something great. The movie opens with a title card promoting tolerance for all people, so it has a good heart. Ed Wood had a good heart. For 1953, it was revolutionary to make a film about transvestism. He was like a pioneer without a map. I initially saw this movie four years ago in a class about censorship. I must have repressed my memories of it. I'm sure we had a blast watching it. I do vaguely remember that. Before I watched it again last night, my viewing companion brought up the one star rating (that's as low as it can go) I gave it on Netflix. So, the first few minutes pass, and I'm like, "This is awful, but sort of charming. Bless his incompetent little heart. Why did I hate it so much?"

Well, I was reminded with a vengeance. I don't hate it, though. There are movies I viciously despise. But there are few that are made as poorly as this one. Some movies are so bad that they're just unwatchable (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song - I even loathe having to count each extra "s"). Glen or Glenda is so bad that it's a laugh riot. Still, through all of the hilarity, there was a lot of pain. I found it extremely insufferable at times. There's just minutes upon minutes of inane explanation. It's only 68 minutes long, but it felt like an eternity. It was neverending. People just repeat the same things over and over. Here's a typical exchange that would happen:

"So, the sky is really blue, but I heard it was going to rain."
"You say the sky is really blue, but it might rain?"
"Yes, that's right. The sky is blue."
"You're right, it is. You don't say."
"I do say. I just said it."
"I suppose you did. You say you heard it might rain?"
"Yes, but I'll get to that in a minute. First, the sky is really blue today."
"The sky is blue?"
"The sky is blue. But it might rain."
"But it might rain?"
"Yes, it might rain, let me get to that in a minute. First, let me explain the phenomenon of the sky being blue."
"Please do explain the phenomenon of the sky being blue. I'm still unclear."
"Well, scientifically speaking, the sky is blue."
"I see now. You say it's purple?"
"No. Blue."
"Yes, blue."
"But why is it blue, and how do clouds form?"
"Well now. Clouds are a whole new subject. I'll get to those things in a minute. First, let me talk about the possibility of rain."
"I thought you were going to talk about the possibility of rain in a minute."
"The minute for talking about the possibility of rain is now."
"I see now. Indeed, it is the time for talking about the possibility of rain."
"Actually, let me get to that in a few minutes."

AHHH! It's like being tortured by words. I feel like Norma Desmond when she says that people in the film industry have made a rope of words and strangled themselves with it. Obviously, that specific conversation never occurred. But a bunch like it did. I'm not even exaggerating. They just keep talking and talking and repeating what the other person said. It's so forced and bland and unnatural. These conversations occur mainly between a cop and a psychiatrist, discussing transvestism. The format of the movie is really odd. It's not really narrative, because there isn't a discernible plot. It's almost like a documentary. There's this random narrator blathering over the whole thing. He sounds like every man who ever narrated a movie you watched in a science class. So, the cop is apparently investigating the death of a man who killed himself because of the persecution he faced for wearing women's clothes. It was not, however, said as eloquently as that. The cop then goes to the psychiatrist to ask why and how and what it is and all this stuff. So, there's the narrator, scenes between the two professionals, random vignettes of different transvestites (mainly Glen/Glenda, but other "cases," too), and Bela Lugosi.

Yes, Bela Lugosi presides over this trainwreck. I mean, he literally presides OVER it all, because he plays God. He's credited as the "Scientist," but he's shown creating life (just mix a couple test tubes - why didn't I think of that?). He's awkwardly interjected into the movie to babble madly about the people on earth being puppets and pulling the string. It seems like Lugosi just stumbled out of the home and onto this set. He practically did. Ed Wood idolized him and basically pulled him out of obscurity to work in his movies. In a way, he gave Lugosi a purpose again, and they became great friends. So, it's sweet and sad to see him here. His acting is just atrocious. I'm sure it's partly the heroin addiction. But he's also stuck in a Dracula time warp. I think he thought he was still playing Dracula. At one point, he tells the people, "Beware! Take care! Beware!" Wow, how insightful. But he pronounces it "Bevare." I doubt Legosi even understood what the movie was about or what he was doing, but you can tell he was grateful to be working again. His eyes bulge on every protracted syllable of the absurd dialogue, his eyebrows raise half a centimeter in some attempt to convey a change in emotion, he's almost choking on the scenery he's chewing, and I think he's a bit high and senile, but he's having a blast.

Let's talk about his role as God in this movie. It's utterly bizarre. I never knew God was so angry and macabre. He sits in this room full of skeletons and other stock horror props. Oh, and the test tubes. Don't forget those. It's like mad scientist fused with the cryptkeeper fused with...God, I guess. If God was your creepy, vampire-like uncle that everyone avoids at family functions, that is. There's no point to him being in the movie except that Ed Wood wanted him there. That's it. Wood's real-life girlfriend at the time, Dolores Fuller, plays his fiancée Barbara in Glen or Glenda. She's possibly the worst actress ever. In the movie, Glen struggles with having to tell Barbara about his other side, Glenda. Plus, he really wants her angora sweater. The movie trudges along with the cop and the psychiatrist engaging in more fascinating discussion. It even veers away from Glen by talking about the case of a man who had a sex change operation.

Eventually, Glen tells Barbara, and the psychiatrist says that it's the result of him not being loved as a child or something, and that Barbara needs to help him kill off this other "character." Hmm, that doesn't seem very tolerant. This is where Wood's naïveté comes in. In the end, Glen wears the clothes less and less until he stops, because Barbara's love cures him. Oops, sorry, I ruined the ending. Now, I don't know if this was the Production Code interfering or not, making him slap on this ending, but this is a real cop-out. Wood was very brave to make this movie and literally put himself out there (he's actually not a bad actor), but then at the end, Glen gives up his transvestism and conforms? Also, transvestism is talked about very condescendingly and antiseptically by the cop and psychiatrist, and especially by that random narrator, like it's some nuisance meant to be fixed. If dressing in women's clothes makes him happy, why can't he keep doing it? Why does it have to be cured? For a transvestite himself, I think Wood missed his own point.

There are so many other things wrong with this movie, like his unending use of irrelevant stock footage, the miserable sets, the pathetic production value, the glaring continuity errors, the awkward shots and lighting, and then his promise in the title card of the movie's "stark realism," when the first shot is Bela Lugosi as God staring wildly at the camera and then haphazardly creating life out of test tubes. Oh my god, I almost forgot about the ten minute long surrealistic scene of voyeurism and sadomasochism. I guess it's supposed to be God/Bela watching these mini-scenarios. There's a couch, and all this kinky stuff happens on it. For instance, a man rips a woman's clothes off (it's mostly concealed) as he apparently rapes her. And she loves it. Women vamp around in skimpy clothes. And the most shocking part - one woman puts another woman on the couch and ties up her hands and feet with rope and then GAGS her. Sheesh, I never knew God was such a perv. We can thank Ed Wood for pointing that out. Bela Lugosi/God's reaction to these sexual shenanigans? An ever-so-light raising of the eyebrows and a blankly bemused expression, as if to say, "Hmm." Yeah...that's...a proportionate reaction.

Sigh. Glen or Glenda is not the worst movie ever made, but it's close. Yet, I'm still sort of fond of it. Of course, it's hilariously awful. But it's more than that. To have affection for this movie, I think you need to know something about Ed Wood or, better yet, to have seen Tim Burton's masterful Ed Wood, his loving tribute to the person some call the worst director in history. Ed Wood was a naïve, exuberant, charming, passionate guy who just loved making movies. He was always optimistic and never let anything destroy his spirit. He truly believed in what he was doing, and he really thought his movies were good. He only did one take for everything. It was all perfect to him. He was just excited to be making movies and living out his dream. Even if he failed miserably, HE didn't think he failed. That's what matters in the long run, isn't it? I respect and appreciate that. It's really very sweet and beautiful.

Okay, put away the tissues, I can't possibly end my review of Glen or Glenda on a sentimental note. Instead, I urge you to pull the string as I leave you with these inspirational words, written by Ed Wood and spoken by Bela Lugosi: "Beware! Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys...puppy dog tails, and BIG FAT SNAILS...Beware...Take care...Beware!" Whatever you say, Bela.

Rating: 1/2* (out of 5)

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