Ors and Ed

April 10th, 2011

The scene is set in a dim 1940s Hollywood cafe, perhaps the Brown Derby, during the somnolent interval between the end of lunch and the beginning of the dinner rush.

Two men share a table and also their woes.  Both of them are having problems with the films they — unlike most Hollywood directors of the day — are both writing and directing.

Although this is the first time they’ve met, these men are at the forefront of what will prove to be several generations of men and women who will master technology, logistics, studio politics, financing, and the idiosyncracies of actors and cameramen to translate their personal visions into the great art form of the 20th century.

Both of these men are, essentially, writers.  Film is the uniquely demanding page on which they tell their story.

As they talk, both of them exhausted, both of them beaten down, they discover just how much they have in common.  They’re brothers in aspiration and experience.  They fight the same wars.

But one of them is Orson Welles, having a bad day on “Citizen Kane,” which will go on to acclaim as one of the greatest of all motion pictures.  And the other is Edward Wood, having his own problems with “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” usually short-listed for worst film of all time.

This encounter probably never happened, but for me it was the absolute highlight of Tim Burton’s masterful “Ed Wood,” with Johnny Depp at his most fine-boned and neurasthenic, as Wood.

As the two men face each other they really do seem to exist on opposite sides of a funhouse mirror.

At seventeen, Welles left America and went to Ireland, where he auditioned for a theater troupe in Dublin, attempting to pass himself off as a vacationing film star.  The actor-manager Micheal MacLiammoir saw through the pretense, but also into the heart of Welles’ talent, and the American teenager remained there for a couple of years, stealing play after play from his elders.  Theatricalism would shape his work for decades.

Wood toured with a carnival, performing in the freak show as The Bearded Lady.  The creative ambiance of the freak show, where sensation was not only the primary thing, but the only thing, would shape his work throughout his career.

Both were extravagantly ambitious.  In his first film, the 26-year-old Welles played Charles Foster Kane from youth to bloated old age.  Wood’s first screen appearance was in what Wikipedia soberly calls the titular role in his own “Glen and Glenda,” wearing several of his beloved angora sweaters and, beneath them, prosthetic breasts of his own design.  “G&G” was one of the first sympathetic film treatments of transvestism.

Welles, as a writer, was a master of the influence of character on destiny, turning out meticulously constructed stories in which powerful characters set out to control their lives and, for want of a better term, fuck it up. For Wood, character was something that could always be enhanced by a vampire cape, a pair of antennae, or an angora sweater.  He was firmly in the more is more camp although this tendency is limited, perhaps mercifully, by his minuscule budgets.

Welles was also inhibited later in life by minuscule budgets, making his Shakespeare films — “Macbeth,” “Othello”, and “Chimes at Midnight” — whenever he could scrape together a few dollars and his cast members.  (Finding himself once with actors but no costumes, he famously shot one key scene in a steambath.)   When Bela Lugosi, at the end of his long battle with drugs and despair, died during the filming of “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” Wood improvised, too, replacing the actor with a double who kept his black cape over his face all the time and was at least a foot taller than Lugosi had been.

But the point isn’t really that one of these two men was a genius and the other fell considerably short of basic competence.  The point is that they were both artists, men with a vision who were monomaniacally obsessed with realizing that vision.  Even if they never actually met, they would have understood each other perfectly.

You don’t have to be a good artist to be an artist.

That’s why the scene in “Ed Wood,” which is played absolutely straight, is probably my favorite film scene about writing and/or creativity.  (For the record, the scene was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski.)  We all do it the same way, those of us who give ourselves to it, whether we’re good or not, whichever “best” or “worst” lists our work ends up on.  And we should all remember what the best of us all said about plays in one of his own, A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.

10 Responses to “Ors and Ed”

  1. Gary Says:

    Ah, yes.

    Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?

    Whenever I watch that final scene in Plan Nine, the one with the paper plate in flames on the end of a string – I mean, the majestic flying saucer in its tragic fiery end – I get a lump in my throat.


  2. Suzanna Says:

    So long as you’re on the subject of great directors/great artists, there’s a rising star in cinema today named Cary Fukunaga that you may want to be on the lookout for. Fukunaga is a 30 something director, whose latest work, JANE EYRE, blew Morgan and I away yesterday afternoon.

    Remarkable performances and cinematic storytelling from someone who has only directed one other commercial feature film. Not a false note or ill-conceived shot in the whole movie. Beautifully done.

    His first feature was killer also, SIN NOMBRE. From gritty immigration story to Bronte in one seamless leap.

  3. Tom Logan Says:

    Based on the last two blogs, I’m beginning to think that the next Tim Hallinan series will have a hero who is a typical college science professor who has a thing for the movies. He solves mysteries through his scientific abilities and experimentation and knowledge of intricate obscure movie plots. I can’t wait!

  4. Larissa Says:

    Suzanna-I just saw Jane Eyre this weekend too! Good stuff I have to say-there were a few things that I felt didn’t totally register as well as they could have but it was hands down, an awesome movie, nonetheless. Completely enjoyed it.

    And now to Tim and the post that sparked all this movie talk (c: Apparently I need to see Ed Wood. And it’s true that you don’t have to be a good artist to still be an artist. I think the really bad ones though are in some ways, more blessed than the really good ones because the bad ones never seem to know they’re terrible while the good ones never realize their own potential. Everything’s a trade-off I guess.

    That being said, however, there is thought from the coach of my favorite road cycling company’s test team that goes something like this: “if you set out to test yourself, two things can happen. It can go right or it can go wrong. But if your goal was only to test yourself, then you are always successful.” Maybe Wood just needed more time to continuously test himself before getting really good (c:

  5. EverettK Says:

    On another subject entirely, I see that Harper-Collins, even though they’ve dropped the further adventures of Poke, Rose and Miaow, are going ahead with the trade paperback edition of Queen, complete with the big yellow “nominated for Edgar” star on the cover. Congrats!

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everybody. I’ve been hanging around with Robb Royer for the past 3 days and that’s it. No other activities. We attended a premiere of Stephen’s new musical work, SEA CHANGE, which was f*cking brilliant, went on to a reunion of the Pleasure Fair (all four of us this time) and just, you know, hung. Will write about it soon, but first there’s a two-parter by Robb coming that I know you’re going to like. Maybe later today if I can finish my taxes.

    Gary, I know just what you mean about the fiery paper plate. Just thinking about it chokes me up. You have to give Ed Wood credit. Just not too much credit.

    Suzanna, welcome back. I was afraid I’d said something to offend you. We (by which I mean Mun and I) want to see JANE EYRE, but that’s no guarantee we will since getting the two of us out of the house at the same time requires an act of God, and he hasn’t been around much lately. We can’t even arrange our schedules to watch the movies Netflix sends us.

    Great idea, Tom. In the first one, he could attempt to warn the world about aliens invading, and the federal government could sue him because only they have the authority warn the world of alien invasions and if they’re not going to do it, they won’t let anyone else do it, either. Wait, I think this one has already been done. It sounds kind of familiar.

    Riss, I posted this piece on two blogs, and you’re the only person to go to what I thought was its heart and also the most interesting thing about it – that you don’t have to be a good artist to be an artist. Your comment is right on; at least, Ed Wood never betrayed any awareness that his work wasn’t great. But I also think that this is a stage through which many artists pass who later become good, or very good, and that it implies something that we don’t talk about enough: that “artist” is a verb that denotes a way of life, and “art” is the product of that. It makes no difference whether your art is good or not; you’re an artist if you focus your energies on creative endeavors. You may get good later, but one thing is certain, and that’s that you’ll NEVER get good if you don’t invest your energies in artistry. And keep it up.

    Everett, they were alway going to publish the trade paperback, but they rushed it by about four months because of the nomination. I’m glad they kept the hardback cover, which I love.

  7. Suzanna Says:

    No, no, you did not say one thing to offend. Just preoccupied with my tax stuff but that’s finally over with. Good luck with your taxes and I really hope you two get to see JANE in a theater. It’s well worth it.

  8. EverettK Says:

    Ah, we’re fellow procrastinators: I’m doing taxes today, too. Ugh.

    Looking forward to Rob’s columns! Maybe that will bring something interesting to this dry, boring, stultifying old blog.

    No, wait, I meant to post that over on the RNC blog… Sorry, I plead lack of blood to my brain from too many hours working on tax shits… er.. sheets… um.. forms.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Everett, I share your opinion completely. Mars and stars. Orson Welles and bad art. Whatever the one before that was.

    Scraping bottom here.

  10. EverettK Says:

    I shouldn’t have ribbed you. I should have known that your sensitive artistic soul would take it to heart. 🙂

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