Film #118: Glen or Glenda (1953)

film 118 glen or glenda

Rating: 3/5

“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even the lounging outfit he has on, and he’s the happiest individual in the world. He can work better, think better, he can play better, and he can be more of a credit to his community and his government because he is happy.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin. Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood’s feature debut and his most overtly personal movie, is easily one of the most (in)famous badfilms around – so much so that it has become something much more. Watching it without any knowledge of the filmmaker is an entirely different experience, but I can barely remember those days. Now my head is filled with Ed Wood trivia, anecdotes, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and all of these have inevitably, irrevocably altered my perception of the film. Let me clarify my position. Glen or Glenda is a bad movie. It’s inept and incoherent, obviously low-budget, and clearly spliced together from a mass of unrelated stock footage. Yet it’s also deeply personal, oddly progressive (with regards to certain groups of people; in contrast, the gay community are entirely vilified), and strangely fascinating. Ed Wood is not a good director in classical terms, but there is something about Glen or Glenda. In many ways, Wood is barely responsible for this re-evaluation – it’s the amount of extratextual information available that transforms way the movie is now viewed.

Viewers who are unaware of the conditions under which Glen or Glenda emerged will be understandably bemused by it. In the context of classical narrative cinema, it is truly inept – following the death of a transvestite, a police inspector (Lyle Talbot) visits a psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell) for advice. The good doctor relates two stories: the first follows Glen, a transvestite engaged to Barbara but afraid to admit his fetish to her; the second follows Alan, a pseudohermaphrodite who finally becomes Ann thanks to the wonders of medical science. So far, so boring, but this framing device is just the tip of the iceberg. As well as the doctor’s voice-over, horror star Bela Lugosi features as a god-like figure called The Scientist, sitting among voodoo totems and bubbling lab equipment, making powerful statements like “Bevare the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep!” and “Pull the stringks!” There’s a surreal dream sequence involving Glen, Barbara, and a devil (played by the wonderfully named Captain DeZita, who also intriguingly plays Glen’s father in one brief scene – whether the connection is meant to be noticed remains unknown). A whole host of off-screen voices make bizarre claims about transvestites, while the doctor continues with his scientific lecture, emphasising that Glen is “not a homosexual” and arguing that men suffer from receding hairlines due to their hats being too tight. At one point Barbara asks Glen what’s troubling him, and a herd of stampeding buffalo suddenly burst onto the screen. The story is entirely abandoned for some eight minutes towards the end, when a series of burlesque scenes involving scantily-clad females tying each other up interrupts the action. There’s no sense of time passing, no real narrative progression, no believable connection between the transvestite and the hermaphrodite. No wonder Glen or Glenda has been considered one of the worst films of all time.

And yet. Glen or Glenda doesn’t appear in IMDB’s Bottom 100 (indeed, no Ed Wood movie does, despite his fame). In badfilm writing, there’s a strange tension when it comes to Glen or Glenda. It has to get mentioned, because to not acknowledge it would be to imply a serious omission in knowledge, but the actual reviews are frequently far more sympathetic and supportive than one might expect. Much is made of the personal, biographical nature of the film: Wood was a transvestite himself, and he plays Glen. His then-girlfriend Dolores Fuller is Barbara. In one particularly iconic scene, recreated in Tim Burton’s excellent biopic, Barbara demonstrates her acceptance of Glen’s alter-ego by symbolically removing her angora sweater and handing it to her fiancé – as any Wood fan will be aware, the filmmaker had an angora fetish that pops up in many of his movies. So much of the film seems biographical: the doctor’s claims that Glen’s mother wanted a daughter and dressed her son up as a girl; remarks about soldiers wearing lingerie beneath their fatigues – these are personal touches, little insights into the filmmaker himself. Even the fact that the film’s message is one of tolerance, emphasising the internal struggle of men who cannot reveal their true identity to the world, is because of Wood’s own struggles – the film, produced by exploitation magnate George Weiss, was originally meant to capitalise on the scandal of Christine Jorgensen’s sex-change operation, but Alan/Ann’s story is completely sidelined, given only a brief mention towards the end of the movie.

The exploitation origins of Glen or Glenda are crucial also. Classical exploitation had its own distinctive style – anyone interested in reading more should check out Eric Schaefer’s excellent book. These movies eschewed the conventions of classical narrative cinema, positioning themselves as a lecture or documentary rather than fiction, as a way of bypassing censorship. By emphasising the “educational” and cautionary aspects of the film, exploitation filmmakers could show all the shock and scandal they wanted. If Glen or Glenda seems particularly incoherent and bad in the context of classical narrative cinema, when compared to other exploitation films of the period, it’s unexpectedly generic.

So much has been written about Glen or Glenda, and so much has been repeated that it often feels as though there’s nothing new left to say. It has been “riffed” and mocked as a bad movie, praised as a deeply personal, if naïve, insight into a filmmaker struggling on the fringes of Hollywood, reclaimed as an avant-garde work of art. Personally, I struggle with the latter position – a work of art suggests something has been deliberately created. Through his own incompetence, somehow Wood has managed to create a film that is so incoherent and illogical, so cobbled together, that it encourages the audience (if they are so inclined) to actively search for justification, to find some way of explaining the weirdness on screen. Yet was Wood himself ever aware of his affect? Probably not. Was he trying to subvert conventions? Doubtful, when Glen or Glenda is so typical of the style of other classical exploitation at the time. Yet he was trying to get his message across. His plea for tolerance and understanding completely dominates the film, bringing a truly (if unintentionally) personal twist to the events on screen. For viewers who are so inclined (and many are), it’s this fact that makes the film so endearing, so sympathetic, so fascinating. Glen or Glenda originated as a generic exploitation film and became a bad movie. It’s still both those things, but such is the film – and filmmaker’s – reputation today that it transcends such seemingly reductive categorisation.

Bonus! You can watch Glen or Glenda in its entirety here!

Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

“Yet year after year,
It’s the same routine
And I grow so weary
Of the sound of screams
And I Jack, the pumpkin king,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.”

Although it’s probably been about ten years since I last watched this, as soon as the opening credits began, I was immediately transported back, and everything felt so completely familiar. Watching the film on a surprisingly undamaged VHS (quite possibly the tape I’ve had longest in my collection – this is one of the few films I’ve owned since my childhood), I couldn’t help but be impressed at just how good The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I liked it as a kid, but as an adult I really appreciate the nuance of it, notice the little details that fill every scene (this time around, I noticed that the Christmas Land folk have pet penguins).

Of course, this is the most quintessentially Tim Burton picture around. His name is synonymous with the film, and its glorious gothic expressionism and unconventional protagonists are so completely and utterly Burtonesque that it seems to exemplify the contemporary auteur’s style even more than Edward Scissorhands. Yet, of course, this is not a Tim Burton picture – not really. In fact, he didn’t even write the screenplay, though the story and characters are based on his concepts. Yes, this is Henry Selick’s picture, and the director has created a vast, rich world, one that he came very close to matching in Coraline some fifteen years later. Tim Burton finally created his own feature-length stop-motion world in 2005 with one of his many collaborations with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride, and ironically that film never comes close to reaching the same levels of immersive gothic fantasy that Selick’s creations inspire.

The story is probably well known to most people. Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king, has led the inhabitants of Halloween Town in another successful, scare-filled holiday, but is having a mid-life crisis. Knowing that he’s great at his job, nevertheless he craves something new, and finds inspiration when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Land. Overwhelmed by the concept of laughter, joy, and happiness, he returns to his home and announces his plans to do Christmas this year. Yet despite their enthusiasm, the townspeople are incapable of looking beyond their own nature, and their attempts to recreate Christmas with the inevitable Halloween influence are wonderfully misguided, transforming the happiest time of the year into something horribly disturbing. People expect to be scared on Halloween, but no one expects their holiday wreath to kill their granny. (On a side note, they should be praised for managing to organise any kind of Yuletide celebrations in such a short time frame – they start after Halloween, and most shops now begin in September at the latest.)

Jack is understandably the most iconic character in the film, and props to Selick and his animators for bringing such a warmth and emotion to what is essentially a skeleton. When he first lands in Christmas Land – the warm colours, cosy homes and twinkling lights in stark contrast to the grey, almost-monochrome world of Halloween Town – his amazement and sense of wonder is instantly conveyed. With only the slightest change in eye-socket-size, Jack Skellington is vulnerable, terrifying, childishly enthusiastic, and world-weary. The rest of the characters are afforded just as much care and attention. Halloween Town is filled with all the creatures and grotesquerie that your nightmares can conceive – all the Universal monsters are present in some guise, and there’s a wonderful array of new characters too. Among my favourites, it’s hard not to love the Mayor, with his alternating faces, and Oogie Boogie, the only real villain in the film, and one of my favourite villains in general. His jazz-inspired number, gambling with the captured Santa Claus’s life, is wonderfully catchy, and genuinely intimidating.

This brings me onto the final point – the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. While there has(understandably, I would say) been a critical backlash towards Tim Burton in recent years, and also with his continuing collaborations with people who once seemed inspired and now appear unoriginal and lazy, composer Danny Elfman is a perfect match for the unconventional filmmaker. A household name – a rarity for screen composers – Elfman’s soundtrack is perfect here, bringing real emotion to the little stop motion characters on screen. And it’s perhaps surprising to realise just how much of a musical this is – in fact, almost the entire story is relayed in song, and Elfman’s score permeates every scene regardless, bringing life and atmosphere to both Christmas Land and Halloween Town alike.

Although today The Nightmare Before Christmas has become slightly tainted by the over-saturation of film-related products – it’s become one of the ultimate “alternative” films for angsty youngsters, and for a while it seemed like every emo or goth came complete with a Jack Skellington backpack – ignoring all the merchandising and paraphernalia, the film itself remains a triumph. It’s a small world, filled with big characters with even bigger plans, yet at its core, it’s a tender romance, and a film about accepting who you are, about learning to embrace your own natural weirdness. As morals go, it’s a pretty good one.

Films #92-95: Ed Wood Marathon

film 92 93 94 95 ed woodathon

Ratings: The Violent Years (1956), 2.5/5; Night of the Ghouls (1959), 3/5; The Sinister Urge (1960), 2.5/5; Ed Wood (1994), 5/5

“I look at this slush and I try to remember, at one time I made good pictures.” – Johnny Ryde, The Sinister Urge

Edward D Wood Jr is a fascinating character; those who have heard of him will probably already know all the famously quirky anecdotes surrounding him – he was a transvestite, he was the worst director of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst film of all time. He is best known for three movies: his debut feature Glen or Glenda; mad scientist movie Bride of the Monster; and sci-fi/ horror hybrid Plan 9 (it’s also these three films that feature in Tim Burton’s big budget biopic). The films I watched for this Woodathon represent some of his lesser known features. Arguably none of them are as “bad” as his better known films, and probably none are as entertaining as a result. What is important to remember is that being known as the “worst director of all time” doesn’t mean that there can’t be moments that work – Night of the Ghouls in particular, while obviously low budget, actually suggests the writer-director-editor-actor-producer wasn’t entirely oblivious to his previous films’ failings. But more on that later.

First up, The Violent Years. Written by Wood, this juvenile delinquency movie is directed by William Morgan, better known as an editor (his work includes several episodes of Lassie, and Portrait of Jennie). While the language is clearly Woodian, the picture itself is a far more gloomy affair: particularly in later years, with long-time collaborator William Thompson working as Director of Photography, Wood’s films were visually sparse, but crisp, and this sharpnesss is missing from this movie. The plot itself is fairly unremarkable – a judge introduces the story (to add gravitas) of a young girl who, not receiving any attention from her parents, turns to a life of crime with her girlfriends. It’s a typical kind of movie for the time, with a typical kind of conclusion not dissimilar from the earlier exploitation pictures – it serves both as titillation (girl gangs, guns, fights, lots of smooching, and even the implied rape of a young man by the gang) and as a warning against considering such a lifestyle, cheekily justifying the presentation of such titillation in the first place. Jean Moorhead is good as Paula Perkins, the leader of the gang; the rest of the girls are non-distinct. Poor Mr and Mrs Perkins get all the blame – at barely an hour in length, oddly the “violent years” themselves are notably brief and Wood’s script gets significantly more preachy as it progresses, with the judge berating the parents and, oddly, claiming that a return to religion would fix this ghastly teenage problem. An interesting, short little curio, the film is largely unremarkable, though undoubtedly benefits from the Wood connection.

Next, Night of the Ghouls. This is Wood’s best known later film and, at the risk of sounding controversial, one of his most interesting movies. It’s his most light-hearted picture, and his most self-aware; it’s also his first feature film not to star Bela Lugosi. This is a shame, because Dr Acula (yes, you’ve read that correctly) is in many ways a role made for Lugosi, initially at least – Kenne Duncan, a legitimate actor with over 270 credited roles, does bring some authenticity to the performance, and seems to be having fun with the ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek premise.

After a strange introduction from legendary hack psychic Criswell, appearing as himself, which includes some vague social commentary about the youth of today (over footage of Ed Wood himself and Wood regular Conrad Brooks having a fight outside an icecream parlour before a car spins wildly out of control and careens down a cliff) Night of the Ghouls starts properly. Despite this introduction, the film is actually about a fake medium, Dr Acula (aka Carl), who preys on mourners for monetary gain. It’s also a kind-of sequel to Bride of the Monster – Acula’s home is built on the ground of the house on Willows Lake, and characters specifically refer to the events of that film. Lobo (Tor Johnson) also features here, having apparently survived the atomic blast that ended Bride of the Monster; so too does Kelton the Cop (Paul Marco), who confuses matters even more by lamenting his latest assignment: his remarks of “Monsters! Space people! Mad doctors!” implicitly also refers to this characters’ appearance in Plan 9 as well.

And there’s more: there’s a crude “Wanted” poster on the wall of the police station, with a headshot of Wood himself below. The lieutenant (Duke Moore, another acting veteran) does his entire investigation wearing a top hat and tails, most probably so that Wood could include a whole section of the short film Final Curtain in this production (legend has it that Lugosi was reading the script for Final Curtain when he died). But most interesting are Acula’s methods of conning his victims. His seances, which take place in barely constructed sets (lots of curtains, bits of carpet lining parts of the floor), include some particularly shoddy effects – a trumpet floats, with the strings holding it up clearly visible in the shadow; a person wearing a sheet (yes, really) crab-walks across the frame; a cup and saucer bob around in front of yet another curtain. These effects are terrible, yet no worse than the UFOs in Plan 9, but – and here’s the point, they are revealed to be fake. On first viewing, knowing the infamy of Wood’s previous films, it’s easy to revel in the ridiculousness of his effects, but the joke is on us in the end. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it’s easy to do with Wood’s movies), but surely the fact that he actually includes a flying (cup and) saucer is a deliberate nod to his previous film’s inadequacies?

Night of the Ghouls, for whatever reason, has never received as much notoriety as Wood’s earlier movies – it’s best known for being the movie that remained unreleased for twenty-three years due to the director being unable to pay the lab processing fees. Perhaps part of the reason it is not as cherished as Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda is that, quite simply, it lacks the naivety of these badfilm classics. It seems as though Wood is having fun here, but also that he is at least somewhat aware of his limitations and, importantly, he’s intentionally playing with the audience’s expectations. In the realm of badfilm, even the weakest attempts at self-awareness are not particularly embraced – it’s the innocence and unintentional badness that captivates people, and with Wood in particular no one wants to believe that he was ever anything other than enthusiastic, but hopeless.

Next, The Sinister Urge. This film serves as a warning against pornography and “smut” pictures, taking on a similar format to The Violent Years. Ironically, it is the last feature film Wood made before his descent into pornography (see One Million AC/DC as one of the last surviving Wood pictures). Much like The Violent Years, it is neither a particularly good movie, nor is it bad enough to be considered one of Wood’s “masterpieces” – as much as people may not want to admit it, his later films did contain significantly more acceptable filmmaking standards, suggesting that the man was learning and developing his technique. The Sinister Urge is fairly unmemorable, save a few moments: one includes an entirely unrelated fight that takes place in an icecream shop – yes, that’s Wood and Brooks grappling around in the sand, with the scene taken from Night of the Ghouls. In typical Wood fashion, there are some winks to the Wood-universe: posters for his previous films line the walls of one of the smut directors, who says they are “made by friends of mine.” There’s also a large subplot about a girl arriving in Hollywood from a small town that is repeated in (or taken from) Hollywood Rat Race, a truly fascinating book written by Wood on how to “succeed in Hollywood.” Other than that, the film is generally unremarkable – there’s a brief moment of actual nudity, which is unusual, and there’s a fun game to be had in seeing just how many outfits Jean Fontaine’s porn-kingpin wears over the seventy minutes, but it’s a fairly dry movie, with too much time spent in the police station and, for a film all about the porn business, not half enough nudity.

Interestingly, none of these films are mentioned in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s fanboy biopic. It’s a wonderful film nonetheless, inspired by Rudolf Grey’s excellent biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy, with Johnny Depp bringing a wonderful, boyish energy to the enigmatic director. Yet it’s as much a film about Lugosi as it is about Wood – Martin Landau is superb as the former star, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his performance (ironically Lugosi never received such acclaim). The film emphasises the friendship between the director and star – and, by all accounts, they truly were friends, with a mutual respect and admiration at the core of their relationship. It is, of course, a highly stylised biopic, with plenty of liberties taken; whole sections are fabricated, including an important pep-talk Wood receives from his (real) hero Orson Welles – so too is the way in which Plan 9 is finally shown to the world. Yet all the strangest, weirdest bits are true: the stolen octopus and its missing motor; the entire cast and crew getting baptised in a swimming pool so that Plan 9 would get its funding; the reasons for Bride of the Monster ending with a nuclear bomb… And there are parts that may or may not be true – not even Grey manages to establish the “truth” in his biography, with personal anecdotes contradicting each other and Wood himself reiterating myths and legends.

Burton’s biopic, as loving and inoffensive as possible, glosses over the darker side of Wood – the film ends with Plan 9‘s first screening, and only alludes to the filmmaker’s troubles after that – and is arguably as instrumental as the Medveds in establishing the cult of Ed Wood. Shot in black and white, it’s ironically a big budget, expertly shot, well crafted movie, one that pays homage to Wood but never makes fun of him, presenting him as always optimistic, charismatic and handsome, filled with enthusiasm, surrounded by a random assortment of Hollywood rejects (portrayed with aplomb by the likes of Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones and, in a particular coup, bona fide wrestling legend George “the Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson) yet always upbeat and prepared for success that somehow never quite materialises.

I always wonder how Wood would have felt about his films being considered some of the “worst of all time.” He died two years before the Medveds’ readers voted him worst director, a bloated, homeless alcoholic. While today his fans like to think he would be pleased at his films’ current popularity, surely it would sting just a little to know the reasons for their fame? As he said, in Hollywood Rat Race: “It’s terrible to hear someone say about someone else’s work, ‘Ahh, that stinks.’ Yet the critic probably couldn’t ink his way out of a paper bag. You put it on paper. Good, bad, or indifferent. At least you had the guts to put it there.”

Film #56: A Town Called Panic (2009)

film 56 a town called panic
Rating: 5/5

“Oh no! C’est ton anniversaire?! OH NO!!!”

If ever there was a film liable to make your head explode, this is it. A Town Called Panic, one of the most inventive, utterly bonkers movies of the last decade (and one of my favourites of 2009) is a brief seventy five minutes of sheer lunacy from the Belgian animation duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The names might seem unfamiliar but a surprisingly large amount of (UK) readers will probably have seen several of their shorts: these are also the people behind those bizarre, manic Cravendale milk adverts. If you remember them, with the footballer (?) and friends whose fridge takes them back in time to provide Cleopatra with the appropriate kind of milk for her baths, or the angry bull who gets de-spotted on a milk-flume, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from A Town Called Panic.

Aubier and Patar’s film follows the exploits of three housemates – Cowboy (played by Cowboy), Indian (played by Indian) and Horse (played by Horse). Really, the chaos ensues when Cowboy and Indian realise it’s Horse’s birthday, but they’ve neglected to buy him a present. Their master plan? Build him a barbecue, of course. So they go online and buy some bricks, but accidentally purchase 50 million of them, instead of 50. Inevitably, everything goes a little bit pear-shaped: their house collapses under the weight of the stashed bricks; someone (or something) keeps stealing their walls; their neighbour is wrongfully imprisoned; our intrepid heroes end up travelling to the centre of the Earth (and also underwater); a giant penguin robot throws huge snowballs at unsuspecting deer; and poor Horse just wants to get to his music lesson. If you think it sounds incoherent, it’s actually not. It is, of course, insanity, but the really fun, surreal kind of insanity, and just short enough to allow viewers to remain largely unscathed by the whole experience.

It’s not just the narrative that is manic: in truth, it’s Aubier and Patar’s animation style that really threatens to fry the brain. They offer audiences the antithesis to the crisp, polished stop motion animation of the likes of Aardman (Wallace and Gromit), Tim Burton (The Corpse Bride), and Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) – while Aardman’s creations occasionally reveal their hand-crafted nature through the faint indentations of a finger print, Aubier and Patar have apparently barely even bothered to make their own models. Cowboy and Indian stand on little green platforms, instantly reminiscent of cheap childhood toys (although, it should be pointed out that at one point Indian gets such a shock that he falls off his); Horse may as well be bought out of a poundshop. The same goes for the rest of the “cast” – the assortment of farm animals and some equally crudely realised people living in the village appear, at first glance, to be bought from a local toy shop for less than a tenner. One almost expects to see the “Made in China” stamp on the bellies of the pigs.

Yet, using this rudimentary style, something quite wonderful is created. The stop motion appears crass, almost, but the artistry and sheer style of the finished product is something truly unique and, in an unconventional way, often rather beautiful. The characters move in unnatural, disconcertingly jerky motions – their constant physicality making up for their unchanging appearance (their expressions, for example). Yet they are utterly expressive at all times despite this facial inertia, although the voice artists should be equally included in this success, due to their quick-fire, frequently hysterical (in both senses of the word) interpretation of the script. Meanwhile, the backdrops and settings are inspired and powerfully cinematic; simple painted skies and basic model landscapes instantly capture the deceptively amateurish aesthetic. And, despite the literal size of the characters, Aubier and Patar never scrimp on their ambitious creativity – this is a film on a vast scale, both narratively and visually. As Cowboy, Indian, and Horse travel around the world – far from the comforts of their little village – the places they travel to are impossibly grand. Just consider the extreme long shots underwater, for example, or their exit from the tiny igloo into the snowy wasteland.

To be honest, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this piece of madness. A Town Called Panic is a very tangible film; relying heavily on slapstick and physical humour, its visual appeal is difficult to really do justice, its dialogue might appear stupid or repetitive when written down. It is a little masterpiece, however, and a surreal, head-shakingly hilarious one at that. Truly, I cannot imagine how anyone who has watched this film could possibly forget it – and if you haven’t seen it, well, trust me when I say, watch it (here’s the trailer to whet your appetite): your understanding of, and appreciation for, stop motion will never be the same again.