After leaving a recent screening of The Disaster Artist, my mind wandered to another, much better film about a clueless auteur bumbling his way to silver-screen infamy: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. What makes this biopic superior is how it displays a clear affection for its subject, the shlock filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. Ed Wood appropriated a black-and-white cinematography of exaggerated angles to celebrate Wood’s style and introduced more film fans to the cult of the filmmaker once dubbed the Worst Director of All Time by the Golden Turkey Awards.
The Museum of Modern Art will give this cult another chance to worship during a February 14 screening of Wood’s 1959 “classic” Plan 9 from Outer Space, the final screening in the museum’s series You are Now One of Us: Film at Club 57. As a part of the Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983 exhibition, the series shares movies loved by the denizens of the famed nightclub.
Guest curator and former Club 57 performer John “Lypsinka” Epperson explained that the regulars’ appreciation for Plan 9 grew out of their appreciation for surrealism. “Ed Wood was an accidental surrealist,” Epperson recalled in an email to Hyperallergic. “Jean-Michel Basquiat was a frequenter of Club 57 for a while and then turned his back on it, saying he was tired of ‘bad’ stuff. It’s surprising he couldn’t see the surrealism there.”
It’s safe to say that Wood himself was also unaware of any traces of surrealism in his work. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1924, Wood had a single-minded desire to enter the motion picture business since childhood, regardless of skill. His pure love of the cinematic form was best observed in his hero worship of Orson Welles, whose status as a multi-hyphenate “director-writer-actor” he greatly admired.
Although Wood also performed these roles in his own films, he unfortunately performed them quite poorly. The cost of film and the maddeningly short shooting schedules led him to only do one take of a particular scene, incorporating easily avoidable errors, like actors bumping into poorly secured cardboard scenery. His love of purple prose birthed quotably incompetent dialogue like, “Future events such as these will affect you in the future.” The performances of his unprofessional actors were likewise lacking, with the exception of repertory player Bela Lugosi, who was so deep in the throes of a heroin addiction when he partnered with Wood that he simply screamed and gesticulated his way through ill-defined riffs when playing his Count Dracula character.
Funded by Baptists hoping to use the profit to start a Christian movie empire, the film is a fascinating study of how a dedicated filmmaker can adapt to setbacks. Lugosi died of a heart attack shortly before production began, so Wood devised a way to craft a final performance from the actor out of candid footage mixed with a stand-in covering his face with a cape; in the final product, it is painfully obvious when the viewer is looking at Lugosi and when the viewer is watching his replacement, but Wood’s dedication to the workaround makes it work.
Wood — who often dressed in women’s clothing and occasionally used the pseudonym “Shirley” — also offers a unique perspective as a queer filmmaker at a time when film scholarship and fandom lacked the vocabulary to properly address LGBTQ issues. Seen today, Plan 9 is a valuable specimen in Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet with its campiness and performers like John “Bunny” Breckinridge, who plays an alien commander decked out in conspicuous mascara and lipstick.
In some ways, Wood’s fame was accidental, and the veneration of the cinephiles at Club 57 came only after his death, in 1978, following a descent into alcoholism and toil behind the camera in skin flicks. But, for me at least, Plan 9 overcomes every ramshackle special effect and hammy line reading by virtue of Wood’s passion for cinema and fervent belief that its magic will glaze over any flaws.
Plan 9 from Outer Space by Edward D. Wood Jr. screens at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd St, Midtown, Manhattan) on Wednesday, February 14, 5pm.