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We'll Still Love You, Ed Wood

October 2008

SOME FILM DIRECTORS are honored for their remarkable achievements — we think of Ford, Huston, Scorsese, Spielberg among these. And there are some that are less than esteemed although we don’t usually single out any of these for special critical beatings. I might consider Judd Apatow for such treatment, but he makes too much money and it would only cause needless controversy. There is, however, a director, Edward Wood, who gained the summit of movie awfulness and was subsequently awarded the distinction of having produced the worst movie ever made — that for his “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. He made plenty of bad films before “Plan 9” but this was the worst, or the best of the worst, if you will.

Mr. Wood has held on to this dubious honor of worst director until very recently — until Mr. Uwe Boll came along. Mr. Boll’s latest movie, “Postal”, was released last May. It may be hard to find in theaters and there are few, if any, published reviews of “Postal”. Nonetheless, there has been much written about Mr. Boll and his filmic oeuvre, greatly inspired by a sizable crowd of film bloggers burning up cyberspace with demands that he cease making films immediately and forever. The virulence with which Mr. Boll’s work is condemned boggles the mind, his art damned as not only the very trashiest ever produced, but the most despicable. Now there’s a win for you considering the quantity of trashy films that have been around these years (I don’t want to get started on Judd Apatow for that would lead me to Adam Sandler, and he certainly makes a lot of money, too.

If Ed Wood must cede his crown as the worst director in film history, it is only because he is the victim of a changing time. Woods’ films were all made in the 50’s, a simpler and more innocent era in the film business. The term ‘camp’ wasn’t in common currency then; very shortly Susan Sontag would provide the definitive meaning: any overly ambitious though well-intended, affective, pretentious, extravagant flop — yet rather lovable for its total failure. You don’t hear this useful dual-purpose noun/adjective any more, maybe since everything in our culture world today has become so camp that we can’t single out and identify camp’s special characteristics. “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is all camp — a serious harebrained plot, eagerly amateurish acting, ridiculously inept effects, clumsy editing and completely barren of any self-reflective sense of parody or satire. Ed Wood himself was camp; at least as he is portrayed by Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s film, “Ed Wood”, a man/child obsessed with the movies, given to manic inspirations, and quite unaware of his lack of talent. Long before it became a sarcastic commonplace in art discourse, Wood’s film gave substance to the phrase ‘it’s so bad it’s good’. Even David Thomson, not a critic to suffer fools gladly, has begrudging praise for Wood’s genuine and honest enthusiasm, suggesting that he is ‘close to genius in disguise’.

So why isn’t Uwe Boll benefiting from this inverse aesthetics? Is it really possible now that something can be so bad it’s actually bad, that it can be roundly maligned, trampled, banished from view? That wouldn’t be good news for a host of contemporary artists. I must confess I’ve seen only one of Mr. Boll’s films, the 2005 “Alone in the Dark” and suffered through most of it mainly at my astonishment at seeing Christian Slater in the lead. Film actors, like some politicians, I suppose, do silly things as their careers are fading. Yet, I ask you, can Mr. Boll’s films be any bloodier, grosser, more obscene, more colossally tasteless than any of the usual run of bloody, gross, obscene, tasteless films we have become accustomed to? If Mr. Boll can, in fact, exceed these standards then shouldn’t he be lauded instead of loathed? Hasn’t he advanced film to new heights of trash and ushered in a bright milieu of film appreciation where film, as well as a few other things, you can bet, can be so bad it’s really bad and that’s a good? Maybe we’re not there yet but close, I figure, thanks to Mr. Boll.

Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” was once made into a computer game; Uwe Boll’s films are based, as he claims, on video games. Isn’t there some inexorable logic in this? Doesn’t it point to the possible re-cycling of trash films into video games, the video games giving birth to further trash films, and so on ad infinitum, each cycle striving for greater levels of awfulness? Something like this has been going on with comic books to film and back to comic books. There might someday be a special Oscar for this — it’s something to think about, all right.