August 26, 2013

Tim Burton Explores the Beautiful Mediocrity of Director Ed Wood

When it comes to B-horror/sci-fi flicks, my heart quivers at the thought of watching one. The over the top scenarios, bad acting, and painfully unrealistic special effects put me in a dopamine-induced pleasure coma the likes of which resemble a 2-ton grizzly in the feverish throes of hibernation. Needless to say, the film about the infamous Plan 9 director, Ed Woodis a film I consider worth studying as well as appreciating for the way the cinematography, acting, and subject matter teeter along the uncanny valley -- it's not quite a chintzy, Ed Wood-esque miscreation, but it bears an eerie resemblance to one. In an interview with Gavin Smith, Tim Burton explores the mediocrity Wood reached inadvertently, yet so entertainingly, and describes how inside every burgeoning filmmaker dwells an Ed Wood whose enthusiasm makes up for lack of talent.

In the interview, Smith explains the relation between Burton's films and the character of Ed Wood the director. He writes:

Burton's films all contemplate in near-sacred terms imagination's attempts to negotiate the mysteries of life, death, and the human need for love that fills the interval between them. Wood is a variant, like The Penguin, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice, of the irrepressible outsider who will not be denied.

Burton's outcast characters, the aforementioned Beetlejuice, The Penguin, as well as Jack Skellington all demonstrate a dire need to acquire a dream even if those around them know that its futile -- futile not because the task is difficult, but because they lack ability to pull it off. Burton comments on Wood's work:

The films are unusual; I've never seen anything like them, the kind of bad poetry and redundancy-saying in, like, five sentences what it would take most normal people one, which I can also relate to. Yet still there is a sincerity to them that is very unusual, and I always found that somewhat touching; it gives them a surreal, weirdly heartfelt feeling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCYG260iUU8

Tim Burton's films are all extremely personal and speak volumes about the man who created them. Burton sheds light on what exactly struck him about Wood's story, stating that not only did he (Burton) grow up in Burbank near a cemetery, which is referenced in the film, but Wood exemplifies the kind of character Burton relates to as a storyteller and a person. So really, there's no wonder why Burton would take a shine to the story of Ed Wood:

I was fascinated by the weird perverted optimism because it's something that I started out with and has somewhat eroded, and (Ed Wood) kind of reenergized me. I liked the theme of duality in somebody's nature: like in Batman, the idea of hiding what you have inside. And perception, how you perceive somebody -- I'm interested in that theme. Also the relationship with Bela Lugosi -- I romanticized it from what I read, but I related that to how I felt about Vincent Price.

This theme of "the outsider" also reaches much further than the diagetic space of the film and Burton's imagination. It broadens and bleeds into how Burton relates himself to the Hollywood studio system that he works out of:

I didn't grow up in independent film; from the first, I was in the studio system, and yet I've still been able to do what I wanted to do. So I feel very lucky, but I don't embrace it. I have a resistance to joining the club because I'm just too aware of what can happen to you. I've seen how people are-if you're successful they like you, if you're not, then they don't as much. It's not based on deep emotion.

Ed WoodTim Burton is able to relate so well with Ed Wood, because even though he considers himself an outsider to society, from his personality to his work, he is still celebrated and accepted. Even Ed Wood, who has topped countless lists as the worst director of all time, is loved for bringing entertainingly terrible films to our screens.

There is a melancholic kind of appreciation to be felt toward Wood -- a filmmaker whose wide-eyed spirit took him further than his talent ever could -- which wasn't even that far. Because I see a little bit of Ed Wood in myself when I believe that the odds of me being a working filmmaker are anything but impossible and insurmountable. There's a bit of wide-eyed spirit for you.

What do you think about Tim Burton's thoughts on Ed Wood? What interpretations did you see in the film Ed Wood? Let us know in the comments.

Link: Tim Burton interviewed by Gavin Smith -- Minadream.com

[via Cinephilia and Beyond]

Your Comment

15 Comments

That film is an apotheosis for both Burton and Depp. Its almost perfect. They both understood the heady mix of sexual repression and child-like wonder Wood embodied.
I've watched it perhaps 20 times. Magical every time. I'll forgive Burton and Depp A LOT simply because of this film.

August 26, 2013 at 11:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

Agreed 100% - hands down my favorite Burton film. Simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring.

August 26, 2013 at 12:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mediocrity? - I beg to differ! - Ed Wood was a true original with something to say, and was anything but mediocre. The guy was sincere and had a lot more going for him than a million Michael Bay's or other makers of highly polished, formulaic crap.

People are so constipated w/r/t esthetics and notions of "quality". Where do they get these opinions from? and how do they shape their mindsets? So much of current cinema is desperately M.O.R. and infinitely more boring than Ed Wood could ever be.

How much mainstream fodder is routinely buried, never to be seen or heard again? The man deserves respect, not (more) smug derision. He's had enough of that already.

August 26, 2013 at 2:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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It doesn't seem like Burton used the word "mediocrity" anywhere. Wood may have been many things, but mediocre? No.

August 26, 2013 at 3:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ian

No, but the article above and the interviewer in the linked article do. It just continues to perpetuate the lazy, knee-jerk, 'official' line. Just think, If Ed Wood were around and making movies today, at least he wouldn't be putting up endless camera tests on Vimeo or getting into pointless, pixel-peeping my camera's better than yours kind of discussions on the interwebs! :D He'd be out there, doing it.

He was a real filmmaker.

August 26, 2013 at 3:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Movies Made in 1959: Ben Hur, Some Like It Hot, North by Northwest, 400 Blows, Black Orpheus, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE

His filmmaking SKILL was mediocre at best. That's not me being smug. That's me comparing Plan 9 with movies from the same era. But, that's just the thing -- the reason I like his films isn't because of their aesthetic and technical quality -- other than them being campy (to today's standards.) I like them because I know the director behind them loved cinema so much that he persevered through his lack of cinematic sophistication. He didn't care -- he just wanted to make movies.

August 27, 2013 at 3:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

With all due respect it's not fair comparing multi-million dollar studio pics like Ben Hur to a true independent film such as Plan 9 From Outer Space. I have never heard anybody compare The Matrix to Blair Witch Project as an example of 1999 films, or Clerks to Forrest Gump as an example of 1994 films.

August 28, 2013 at 3:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Aaron

Mediocre means average and UN-inspired. Who gives a shit about technical skill if it's employed in the making of instantly forgettable yet competently made movies? - Don't get me wrong, I am all for learning (which never ends) and craft, but a lot of folks are too constipated by this.

Ideas and passion as well as reaching beyond your grasp and daring to 'fail' are much more important. So is being honest about who you are. That is another reason why Ed Wood's films matter, because he dared to make his work personal. That resonates. Technique ultimately doesn't. See Cassavetes for a masterclass in this, and don't try to say that you can't put Wood in the same ballpark as Cassavetes - such comparisons are silly and miss the point.

It is utterly meaningless to try and compare his work with the movies you listed, as Arron points out. Poor article, poor response - A lack of literary sophistication.

August 29, 2013 at 1:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Plan 9 was actually made in 1957 and was distributed in 59. That aside, the financial limitations for truly independent filmmakers in the 50's was astounding. Compare wood with Francis or some of the (very few) other guys, and you'll see he was quite innovative and, more importantly, had a distinct voice. Even comparing some of Corman's creature films of the time, Wood stands out. And Corman had a deal with Allied and had produced a dozen money-making films at that point!

I'm one of the few who strongly dislikes Burton's Ed Wood, because it perpetuates the myth that those working with no budgets outside the system are completely disposable and culturally irrelevant, but gosh darn their naive optimism!

September 2, 2013 at 12:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Elle

@Adam, Poor article? Poor response? A lack of literary sophistication? Seems like I'm the kind of writer that you'd defend in some comments section.

Mediocre doesn't mean "uninspired." It means "of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance." In this case, I was calling his films mediocre in terms of their low production values, bad writing, and bad acting.

Again, I agree with you all about Wood. I like his enthusiasm and passion -- two things that have the power to save a bad film. His films, like many films, are important for various reasons. But, he doesn't stand for the technical excellence, be it in screenwriting, directing, cinematography, editing, etc., that one can aspire to in independent film from this era. In fact, Wood wasn't even trying to champion for independent film. Cassavetes was the one who stood for excellence and independence in cinema -- at least in my opinion.

@Elle, that wasn't the message I got from Burton's "Ed Wood," and according to the interview from the article, that wasn't his intention, but that doesn't mean that there isn't an expectation out there that low budget, non-Hollywood movies are going to be bad. (Obviously, that's not true.)

Passion isn't the only thing that makes a filmmaker great, guys. If that were true, everyone would be great filmmakers.

September 2, 2013 at 1:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

That's right, he WOULD be doing it.

And his movies would still be lousy, it's just that they would show up on Amazon streaming and no one would watch them and he'd be forgotten, like all the many, many other untalented filmmakers doing the same thing.

September 5, 2013 at 1:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Muh

I think what appeals is not so much whether Wood was mediocre or not, it's that there is this air of innocence about the whole thing. Lugosi too, not realising how bad the scenes were, lost in his own past fame perhaps. Maybe they were aware but I doubt it. It's the innocence that makes you forgive and almost love the work, like children at play.

August 27, 2013 at 5:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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JPS

So, I was talking to Larry Karaszewski once ... naturally, the subject of conversation was the "Problem Child". And not even a movie, which was yet to be made, but the song. Both of us were AC/DC fans and the "Problem Child" was the only feature screenplay on his resume at that point. (I am hot but, when I am not, I am cold as ice)

August 27, 2013 at 8:26AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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