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  Edward D. Wood, Jr.
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(1922–1978). American director.

Directed: Glen or Glenda (and wrote) (1953); Jail Bait (and produced; co-wrote with Alex Gordon) (1955); Bride of the Monster (and produced; co-wrote with Gordon) (1956); Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959); Night of the Ghouls (1959).

Wrote: The Bride and the Beast (Adrian Weiss 1958); Orgy of the Dead (A. C. Stevens 1966).

When we were small children, and we saw a crippled man (the term we used back then), we might stare intently or giggle at him; but our parents would grab our hands and hurry us away, whispering, "That's not polite." Someday, western civilization may mature to the stage where people realize that it is not polite to stare intently or giggle at crippled movies.

A rational book on science fiction film would dismiss Edward D. Wood, Jr. in a single sentence: "Edward Wood was a director with very limited talents and very limited resources who made a few, very bad films." More discussion is required only because Wood has improbably become the center of a cult. His work has been extensively analyzed in the bad-movie books of the Medved brothers, who awarded him a Golden Turkey as the Worst Director of All Time. His films are regularly shown at film festivals and chalk up steady sales in video stores. And he has been the subject of a video documentary and a film that was, astonishingly, a rather traditional Hollywood biopic, Tim BURTON's Ed Wood (1994). Whether all this attention is really a service to the man remains debatable; it is better to be remembered than to be forgotten, I suppose, but deciding whether one prefers eternal obscurity or eternal ridicule is a difficult choice.

It is also not immediately clear why, with so many other plausible candidates available (Al ADAMSON, Larry BUCHANAN, Phil TUCKER, etc.), Wood has emerged as the most celebrated bad-movie director. Perhaps it is only because he was such a colorful character, a cheerful transvestite who attracted an extremely odd circle of friends and collaborators. Or perhaps—if laughter is indeed, as Henri Bergson argues, based on the appearance of incongruity—it is because Wood's films are so amazingly incongruous; no other director combined such lofty ambitions with such dismal results. It is hard for modern viewers to believe, but Glen or Glenda was envisioned as a passionate argument for the acceptance of transvestitism; the conclusion of Bride of the Monster was supposed to serve as a powerful statement about the folly of nuclear war; and Plan Nine from Outer Space was designed as a science-fictional take on the Book of Revelations, as signalled by its titular number nine and its dead people rising from their graves. There is also the minor incongruity of Wood's insistence on making movies that demand special effects when he had no budget or talent for special effects; some of the biggest laughs in Burton's film come from displaying his absurd improvisations in this area—Bela LUGOSI wrapping the stuffed octopus around him, the paper-plate flying saucer set on fire, and so on. But there is no need for a lengthy analysis of Wood's various ineptitudes; other critics have done all that work.

With their infinite ingenuity, critics could no doubt advance any number of arguments about Wood's importance—pointing out that his films suggest a natural affinity between science fiction and the alienated, eccentric outsider; arguing that there are recurring themes, such as a simultaneous fascination with and revulsion towards the unknown, that reverberate throughout his work; perhaps even maintaining that films can be appreciated not simply as polished narratives but as documentary records of encounters between interesting people, which would make Wood's movies inadvertent but valuable examinations of a neglected American subculture. But this is also work that I will leave to others. I strongly suspect that any profundities one might extract from Wood's oeuvre could also be extracted, with less effort, from any number of bad science fiction films. (As a professor of mine once pointed out, if you stare at anything long enough, you start to see deeper meanings in it.) This is the question critics must ask: do these films communicate anything of value, anything that is not communicated in quite the same way by other films? To me, the only lesson Wood provides is that science fiction films can be very bad indeed when they are made quickly and cheaply by talentless people; but do we really need any evidence to support that hypothesis?

People may choose their own entertainments, but I am personally tired of laughing at incompetence. The last I tried to watch Plan Nine from Outer Space, I gave up well before its conclusion—perhaps recalling my parents' words and realizing, as is often the case, that they were right all along.

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