Sunday, November 23, 2008

Plan 9 from outer space, or the man who made bad films

After watching the film on the life of Ed Wood, the first reaction I had was: he was so bad that he was good! He was a director, who didn’t make great films, not even good films, but the worst films ever. He is recently titled as the “worst director of all time”. And this has resulted into a posthumous cult status, and a large number of underground fan following, something which he would have enjoyed had he been alive.

Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is an honest portrayal of Ed, and is beautifully crafted in black and white to give the feel of a bygone era. The film opens in a stormy night, and zooms into a ghost house of a sort; from the coffin a man emerges and informs us about how what we are about to see is collected from the testimony of the miserable souls who survived, and warns us: “Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood Jr.?” Obviously, there is nothing so shocking in the film that can make our heart wrench, but this first scene is a note to the way B-films were crafted, and gives us the idea about how Ed’s films were: giant octopuses gorging mad scientists, aliens from outer space robbing graves, soldiers seeing ghost of a woman in the Warfield, and juxtapositions so bizarre that even pulp magazines would get shy! He was a pathetic writer, used to finish scripts in the span of two to three days, and never improved the written draft; during shootings as well, he never took a retake. After the first take of any scene, he would say “perfect!” His unit members also felt that the scene was not perfect, but he would reply “films are not about smaller details, but bigger picture!” Johnny Depp is convincing as Ed Wood. He effectively manages to have that half-proud, half-innocent smile on his face, all the time. Whenever he is seen directing he has this smile on! Anyone would feel, best or worst, Ed enjoyed making films. Ed loved being on the sets, shouting “action”, lip syncing silently the dialogues pronounced by his characters, and that glow in his big eyes, marking amazement, every time he watched his own films. I had a whiff that Ed didn’t even care whether he made good films or bad films. He just made films. (A similar notion I have found in another film called ‘Day for night’)

Ed took inspiration from Orsen Welles. Like Welles he would also write, produce, and direct his films. In one scene near the end of the film Burton brings the two of them face to face in a cafĂ©. Ed tells Welles that he is a big fan of him, and they converse. Welles tells him that film-making is about vision, and that a director should stick to his vision. Indeed, Welles, the maker of Citizen Kane, was talking about a substantial vision, and not UFOs meet Dracula, but there is a stark contrast in the scene: one of the greatest directors of all time and the worst one are talking about vision. There is still something which is common between them: passion for making movies, and an urge to keep telling stories. As a matter of fact, both had problems with production companies. In the film as well, the lengths Ed goes to get someone to produce his films makes some of the most interesting scenes. He even gets his whole unit baptized so that a local church could produce his film “plan 9 from outer space”, a film that today enjoys a clut status for being horribly bad.

The best moments of Burton’s film are Ed’s interactions with Bela Lugosi (a Hungarian actor known primarily for playing Dracula). We meet Bela as a ‘nobody’; he had enjoyed a star status, but no studio wants him now; Ed is an admirer of Bela and ropes him in. Martin Landau is amazing as Bela Lugosi; his hand gestures, the tired devilish smile while performing, the gait with which he walks is all blended superbly. Martin Landau won an Oscar in the best supporting actor category for this role, and rightly so. Bela is old, worn-out, lonely, laments the death of his wife, is trying to gain the fame he once had, and in some scenes we can clearly see that he is tired of this all! I was thinking: who is better? Bela Lugosi himself, or Martin Landau’s version of Bela! If not for anything, one must watch this film for this performance – it is so satisfying. Ed had shot the last footage of Bela in which the latter walks out of his house with a slow and tired gait, plucks a flower, and smells it. Black and white, and soundless, that scene looks so distant that it has a haunting feel to it. Ed, along with numerous actors of his unit who now exist only in the stock footages of B-films were unique; I don’t know whether to call them untalented because they didn’t make a perfect sensible film, but they were those whom fame and success always eluded. And in their struggles to make films Burton has found a story far humane and substantial than the films they made. I even think that this is the best Tim Burton film I have seen, even better than Big Fish which I enjoyed watching throughout.

In the final scene of the film, during the premier of “plan 9 from outer space”, Ed looks around the auditorium filled with people, their faces gazing at the screen, he tells to himself “this is the one I will be remembered for!” and so it is.

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