Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Twenty-Five


#25 — Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
Movies are fun. It’s a simple truth that doesn’t get offered up enough. As much as I might expound upon the artistry of certain directors or eagerly try to plumb the nuances of deliberately obtuse French cinema, layering on a veneer of academic rumination to my reaction, the bottom line is that movies are a draw because of the more immediate responses they elicit: laughter, chills, jumps, gasps, the swelling of hearts and libidos. I had a friend who reduced every movie-going experience to the shrugged assessment, “It was fairly entertaining.” I used to mock him for that–he was more intellectually rigorous in nearly every other aspect of his life, after all–but I think, in a way, he was on to something. That’s what most people want, just a nice diversion. Even more demanding moviegoers who champion the films that exhaust the head are probably more likely to revisit those that hold magic that grips the heart.

Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is about that sense of fun. For starters, the movie is pretty fun itself. It’s a jaunty biography of the nineteen-fifties low-budget writer-director so routinely held up as the faultiest practitioner of the cinematic arts that calling his efforts B Movies is a case of abusive grade inflation. Despite this, there’s no fatalism in the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. It is instead as bright and hopeful as a children’s adventure, sending Wood bobbing around Hollywood soundstages as if he’d bypassed the sourness of life to find an earthly Eden. He is in love with movies themselves, enraptured by the endless possibilities they hold, and, therefore, delighted that he has the chance to make them, no matter the struggle it sometimes takes. He surrounds himself with fellow misfits equally happy to search for the joy of creation on the shady fringes of Hollywood’s reflected light. That includes one fractured, discarded soul who once had the center of the spotlight to himself, creature feature star Bela Lugosi, played with almost alarming verisimilitude by Martin Landau.

Burton brings a thrilling energy to the film. There is a celebration of the outsider that unites most of the films on his resume, but he still sometimes holds the weird at a remove, meant to be ogled at but not really to inspire full empathy. That’s not the case with Ed Wood. The director is shoulder to shoulder with his characters here, perhaps understanding more keenly the drive to press on when others have already delivered a dismissive verdict. He finds the humor in Wood’s ineptness, especially his blithe disregard for its impact on the film that will result, but also allows the infectiousness of his belief to come through. Wood’s films may be legendarily bad, but it’s easy to understand how he could continually convince his cohorts to follow him back into the fray, questing fruitlessly for a masterpiece. When the process of doing it–banging around on mad scientist laboratory sets or wrestling with a rubber octopus in a makeshift pond–is so silly, so giddy, so fun, how could anyone refuse?

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