There is an interesting distinction between exploitation filmmakers. There are those who are just in it for the money — people like Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then there are visionaries (who were often con men) who would do whatever they could do to get their ideas on film — people like Ed Wood.
It doesn’t much matter to the final result. Lewis would never write anything as breathtakingly personal as Glen or Glenda. Yet in many ways the two men were quite similar. Wood certainly wanted his unique vision to be profitable. And Lewis was quite willing to tackle the social issues of his day in his later films.
Realism in Filmmaking
The issue, I think, is the realism of the filmmaker. Lewis famously said that he felt sorry for filmmakers who were trying to make art. Now, like so many things Lewis said, I think it was more for effect than anything else. But there is no doubt that Lewis was, as the Mothers put it, “only in it for the money.”
Wood, on the other hand, would have made his films if he knew that there was no money in it.
If Lewis Had Made Glen or Glenda
I focus on Glen or Glenda because it is Wood’s most pure vision — from his id on to celluloid. And this is why I consider it one of the greatest films ever made and the greatest idiosyncratic film ever made. (Oh, if he were only alive to see me write that! And sorry, George Barry: you still made a great film.)
But Lewis would have had no problem making Glen or Glenda himself — so long as he thought it would have made money. But I doubt it would have been as good — at least to viewers like me.
Wood was down on his knees begging society to understand him and those like him. Lewis would have been down on his knees looking for dropped dollars at the drive-in entrence.
Different Ways to Make a Great Film
Anyone who’s read more than a couple of sentences by me knows that I fall into the Ed Wood camp. Art? Professionalism? These are fine things in their right place. But they aren’t very important in psychotronic film. What I most love about psychotronic film is that it surprises me. When I first saw Glen or Glenda, I felt like I had entered Ed Wood’s brain — a wondrous place to spend an hour.
With Lewis’ films, I don’t get that experience. He never let’s me inside because his motivation is money, even if what he produced was often great.
An Aside: Ed Wood Was a Good Director
The idea that Ed Wood was a bad (much less the worst) director is nonsense. Most people who have seen any of his films have only seen Plan 9 From Outer Space — and only after being told it is a bad movie. And the rest just take it as a fact, having never seen it. (This is similar to Gary Larson’s “Hell’s Video Store,” which only had Ishtar for rent — a cartoon he created — and later apologized for — having never seen that great comedy.)
Plan 9 is not a bad film! Although hardly a great film, it is interesting throughout. What’s more, it’s subversive!
Focusing on Stupid Things
Yet people focus on things like the tombstones falling over. Why? Because they’ve been told to! I’m a movie fanatic. Now I mostly watch them alone, but I’ve watched hundreds with audiences, and they don’t notice things like this.
I think it wasn’t until my own fifth watching of Plan 9 that I noticed the tombstones. Why? Because I was concentrating on the story — like most viewers.
Who Does Professionalism Impress?
The exceptional amount of professionalism put into Hollywood films is put their for the filmmakers themselves. And this is why we end up with films like the first Star Wars looking so bad after a couple of years that Lucas was driven to replace all his special effects because two years later they were embarrassing. (I think doing that is an artistic sin; art exists in its own context; but I guess it isn’t a sin for Lucas because he is no artist.)
But most filmmakers don’t have that kind of money or power. So we have countless films that turn from live-action to cartoons and back. I personally find it distracting. Tombstones falling over on a tiny part of the screen is much easier to overlook than the fact that half of the third act of The Matrix Revolutions is a cartoon — and one that looks worse ever year.
Watch Jail Bait (which Ed Wood made between Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster). You will see a perfectly competent writer and director. Indeed, in terms of professionalism, he was easily as good as Herschell Gordon Lewis. But Wood had a personal vision that Lewis did not. And maybe Lewis is right: we should pity Wood.
But had Wood been an art painter, it is exactly this vision that would have made him a star. But since film is commodity to most people, Lewis is the success and Wood the failure.
Luck and the Movies
Still, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Lewis was just lucky. It’s not like gore wasn’t in the air. As I pointed out in my discussion of Blood Feast, Akira Kurosawa was already playing with gore in Yojimbo (1961) and in a spectacular way in Sanjuro (1962).
Had it not been for Blood Feast, Lewis would be remembered fondly by people like me for films like Scum of the Earth! and The Gruesome Twosome, but he would not be the icon he became.
The same is true of Wood, of course, but in a horrible way.
Some people decided to focus on Plan 9 From Outer Space and decide that it was the worst film ever. I don’t know where they got that idea — maybe just because Michael Bay hadn’t started making films yet. Most likely, they just didn’t understand what Wood was doing. And they probably hadn’t seen that many films anyway.
But it caught on. Ed Wood was “the worst director of all time” based upon seeing only one of his films and not understanding it. Sorry, but this is great writing and directing:
The Psychotronic Filmmakers Curse and Blessing
One thing you hear again and again in director commentaries on psychotronic films is disappointment. The directors wish they could have done this or that. Or they made a bad decision here. Or they really wish they had been able to go back and re-shoot this scene or shoot a missing transition. But they couldn’t. You never hear this from Hollywood directors because they aren’t constrained in that way. They’re constrained in a much worse way: in what the kind of film they can make to begin with.
Whether for money or vision, the psychotronic filmmaker is artistically free to make the kind of films they think people want to watch — whether they are right (as Lewis was) or wrong (as Wood was). In the end, we get films that delight us if we are open to them. All the “art” and professionalism in the world will not stop me from passing out before the first reel is finished.