Monday, January 23, 2017

Glen or Glenda (1953), by Ed Wood

I think it's safe to say that by merit of the Internet alone, Edward D. Wood Jr. will never, ever be forgotten from the annals of humanity. In a hundred years time he will be remembered just as surely as Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, or Martin Scorsese. What I've been able to conclude from my short years on this Earth is that oftentimes it is the volume of one's reputation that counts, not the purity of it. We have reached a moment in history where bad is worth the same as good as long as it's in equal proportions--this has demonstrated itself in ways both good and bad. On one hand, humanity continues to prove to me on a regular basis that it is easily blindsided by cheap celebrity to the point where it is willing to encourage an avatar of the frothy, screamy discord of reality TV to attempt to fuse its ugly mass with the terminal controlling a significant number of the world's nukes. But on the other hand, there still is something special about praising and embracing the awfulness and mediocrity of our collective failures. I'm sure it's a matter of scale--Ed Wood never became President of the United States nor pioneered a depressingly hideous orange wig (even if wig-wearing is the theme for today). But there's something else going on, too. While most people are quick to call Ed Wood "the Worst Director of All Time," they seem to lump in the notion that he was an idiot.

Wood was most definitely not stupid. He worked within the confines of poverty, true, but his movies feel more like studio films than many of the flicks highlighted on this site. Perhaps he couldn't stretch his funds as far as an H.G. Lewis or a Roger Corman, but he wasn't as amateurish as many make him out to be--and arguably, the entertainment factor of his films exceeds that of Lewis' or Corman's. In addition, his legendary guile in obtaining the money he used to produce his pictures rivals that of Corman at his most infamous. He was a storied man, willing to suffer for his art. What was more confining for him was media. Studying Wood's writing, through his pulp prose and his scripting, we see ideas that exceed his budgets, yes, but which also exceed the conventions of what he's working with. He's trying to build a time machine with nothing but a screwdriver. If at some point in the future we can make movies that are telepathic and send emotions to the viewer, we should bring Ed Wood back from the grave in a computer or something so that all his films can be remade. Then we will finally glimpse the ecstasies and tortures of the soul within.

I say this because Glen or Glenda is perhaps the trippiest movie Wood ever made, barring perhaps the later Orgy of the Dead. It is also Wood's drive-in expose of transvestism and "pseudo-hermaphroditism," a bizarrely prescient docu-drama on transgender politics, decades before it was considered anywhere close to acceptable to be openly trans in the U.S.

Describing Glen or Glenda as a narrative is a little tough because of said trippiness. We open, naturally, with a dark parlor where Bela Lugosi is sitting, and where he will sit for the rest of the movie when he isn't mixing chemicals or superimposing himself over stock footage. Already I have to say that you have to watch this opening sequence for yourself to understand the full scope of it: in case you haven't seen Plan 9 from Outer Space or Bride of the Monster, Ed Wood is largely famous for the fact that his dialogue makes absolutely no fucking sense. Quoth the famous Criswell: "Future events such as these will affect us in the future!" (Plan 9 12:1). With that sort of garbage coming out of Bela Lugosi's mouth it is absolute pure entertainment. Lugosi will appear throughout the movie to do things like show us a buffalo stampede or mock us with nursery rhymes. We see the police find a dead man who is dressed as a woman--in hir suicide note ze mentions how many times ze's gone to jail for transvestism, and how ze wants to die as ze wanted to look. One of the policeman begins talking this over with a psychiatrist, who tells us two stories (one of which contains a story within the story), concerning Glen/Glenda and Alan/Anne. Glen(da) strives to hide his transvestism from his fiancee Barbara, especially when she expresses her disgust over the idea of sex changes when she reads a newspaper article about them. We learn about how Glen's transvestism comes about and what it all means: he was encouraged to wear his sister's dresses because she felt he looked better as a girl (and she only wanted daughters); and he seems to only be interested in wearing the clothing of women, insisting that he is heterosexual and does not desire a sex change. Here's where I should point out that this is a pretty strong parallel to Wood's own life as a heterosexual cis transvestite who began cross-dressing in youth (Wood also plays Glen/da in what is a legitimately good performance). He decides not to tell Barbara his secret until after the wedding, leading to a sequence where a legitimately-creepy Satan presides over the wedding and chants "Snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails" in tandem with an increasingly-spooky Bela. Along the way we learn about how Alan/Anne is a transvestite who becomes excited and enticed by the prospect of a sex change, especially after ze finds out ze's intersex, possessing female organs as well as male ones. Ze eventually undergoes gender reassignment, and we learn about hormone therapy as well as top and bottom surgery in as much detail as the '50s could allow--a surprising amount, as it happens. Both Anne and Glen get their happy endings, as Anne is able to pass and live as a cis woman to all appearances as she wanted, and Glen is accepted by his wife, who wants to let him have the things that make him happy.

As a queer person in the 21st Century you may imagine that I don't regard the 20th Century with much fondness. All the same, I am finding out that, just as there have always been people like me, there have always been cracks for us to find our homes in. There was an LGBT+ community in the 1950s, even if it wasn't something that could be out in the open. For all my research shows, Wood presents an honest view of the decade that cracks not only stereotypes about that point in history, but it also chips the very real heteronormative suppression of queer folk and experiences of the era: when he says that there are many men who aren't men or who don't shy away from "female" clothing among the American public he is not lying. As this movie was being shot and screened there were thousands of queer folk and transvestites doing their thing behind locked doors and closed curtains. That's not even getting into the fact that this a pro-intersex movie in 1953 when there is virtually no representation of intersex folk (much less positive ones) sixty-four goddamn years later. In any case: whether they were persons queer in body, sexuality, or gender, or if they were people with differing ideas on the concept of fashion, people like me existed even when we weren't "supposed" to. And that gives me hope, in the same way the final scene of Some Like It Hot does; it shows that there were spots where we weren't funny, or freakish, or mentally ill. We were people that our straight cis loved ones could accept--there was always a small chance that we could be the people we wanted to be, get the bodies we were supposed to have. In addition to embracing these images, Glen or Glenda refuses to shy away from the harsh reality that a lot of us die, and when we do, the world still insists on dragging us through the mud. Throughout the movie, the characters are haunted by that front page headline decrying sex changes, attacking dead people who underwent them. Even our criminals, many of them, get better treatment when they shuffle off the mortal coil.

I'm sorry: it's impossible for me to communicate my feelings about this movie without being political. As an apology I should also show the movie's imperfections, of which there are many. There is a weird contrasting sense throughout the film that transvestism, and possibly the state of being transgender as well, should be "cured"; at times the movie refers to both transvestites and trans folk as "mistakes of nature" and "Frankenstein's monsters." There is also a condescending tone towards women, and notably there are no trans men, nor are there women who dress or try to pass as men. Similarly there is some implicit homophobia in Glen's insistence on being straight--and nope, no gay characters appear, as Anne is apparently attracted to men. On top of this is some mercifully brief but still marring racism, wherein it straight up compares "natives" (cue dancing Africans in tribal gear) to animals in order to make some nonfunctional parallel between gendered crests and mating rituals among birds and the plumage-like masks worn among the dancing men. It could be cut from the movie and nothing of value would be lost (although these moments do serve as an unpleasant reminder that yes, even those lacking privilege in society can be bigoted towards another underprivileged group). These are the inevitable bumps of this being commissioned explicitly as an exploitation flick; Wood's insistence on a message of love and acceptance shows that he at least had his heart in the right place, and I really can't help but wonder if these more exclusive elements were additions or mandates by the studio. After all, love and acceptance do not good exploitation make, even if it involves topics taboo at the time.

Glen or Glenda does a great job of capturing its creator's eccentric mind on film, which is what trash is: a record of a mind which could never be put at the reins of a mainstream production. We can see more of Ed Wood as a person just by watching this, even if--especially if--that includes dubbing in female voices by shifting the pitch of the dub on a clumsy tape recorder. Wood's obsessive earnestness combined with shockingly empathetic material makes me seriously question anyone who would call this one of the worst films of all time. It is cheap, yes, but it is not bad. You certainly can't call terrible a movie that ends with, of all things, Bela Lugosi sighing and chuckling over the silliness of the gender binary. By the way: this is Bela's best performance ever, and that is (probably) my final answer.

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