Ed Wood: The Real Disaster Artist

On the first day of December, the movie The Disaster Artist was released. Directed by James Franco, the film was adapted from the book of the same name By Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero and refers to Tommy Wiseau, the film maker responsible for a movie, The Room, which is on virtually every top 10 list of the worst films ever made. Sestero co-starred in the The Room, and having survived the experience gave a first person accounting of what it was like to live and work with Wiseau. Normally having not seen the entire film I would refrain from commenting on it. I have viewed a number of clip compilations and in this particular case I think that even a limited exposure will suffice. When you’re witnessing a genuinely singular moment, you just know. Saying this thing is a hunk of shit is like focusing on Idi Amin’s shaky table manners. You might be right but your definitely missing the headline. All of this is pretty well trod ground. The movie, and its creator are punchlines with a consensus of that idea which spans every conceivable sort of intrinsic difference that any two people might have. Age, race, political, affiliation; we can all agree that The Room is not really what any critics group would be thinking of during awards season.

Which naturally turned my thoughts to Ed Wood. Not the (excellent) Tim Burton bio-pic, but the man himself. For those who have not actually seen any of Mr. Wood’s output, you’re really missing something. The work is uniformly bad, ranging from pedestrian failure (Jail Bait) to hallucinatory ineptitude (Plan 9 From Outer Space). But that’s not the point. Lots of people make bad movies. The point, for me, is that it’s possible that never in the history of everything (apologies to Churchill) has one man done so much and reached so many with so little. It’s not just a lack of talent. Or a lack of resources. Or even deleterious personal circumstances. It’s that he labored through all of those impediments with the devotion of a Carmelite nun and level of persistence normally associated with the autistic spectrum. The kinds of restrictions that might have kneecapped a lesser man barely slowed him down.

Working through this one step at a time I worry that I won’t do justice to the improbability of Ed Wood having built a resume, regardless of its dubious quality, as an artist. His incapacity as a writer is difficult to quantify. Finding a favorite quote from his oeuvre is roughly akin to selecting which of Pete Rose’s 4000 plus hits best exemplify him as a ballplayer. Even using the strictest criteria, it’s a fool’s errand. If I had to choose I guess Jeff Trent had a beauty in Plan 9, saying…”modern women. They’ve been like that all down through the ages.” That, is an achievement. That’s not just a weak phrase from someone with no ear for dialogue. George Lucas at his worst never had Luke or Leia offering up a stink bomb like that. The quote in question allows us to entertain the notion that there was someone who walked amongst us with no discernable first language. It’s syntactically convoluted to a degree which brings the viewer to the classic Stan Laurel zen coan; is the character a genius or an imbecile? A personal favorite. He penned countless others that make the case more succinctly than that one.

Aside from not having the requisite skills, Wood worked with material resources that would have been insufficient for any production more involved than the third grade play. If it wasn’t a musical. His films were typically produced on a budget that involved a fundraising process only marginally more sophisticated than going through his sofa cushions, looking for spare change. In an odd way, watching Ed Wood squeeze a check out of someone must have been like seeing a brilliantly disciplined improv troupe at work. Apparently he never said no. Someone thought their nephew was a natural born actor, no problem. Promotion of family/Christian values a deal breaker, just what he was thinking. At the end of the day, he was ready to start shooting. Following in the footsteps of Ford and Welles he had a stable of thespian talent at his disposal. When the high end of your stock cast is a tragically addicted Bela Lugosi, things move downhill rapidly from there. Tor Johnson, Maila Nurmi, Criswell. Not exactly Joseph Cotton and Maureen O’Hara. No money, no talent, no problem for Ed.

In the closing years of his life his fortunes took a turn. Which normally would be difficult to tell, all things considered, but his cinematic output slowed considerably in the late 60’s, a fact which is probably related (in one direction or another) to his alcoholism. Even then, he found a way to answer the muse. Along with ten movies his name is on, he wrote more than 80 novels. A mélange of gruesome horror, poorly plotted mysteries and drugstore pornography, it kept him going until his untimely demise from a heart attack at the age of fifty-four. That my friends, is the resume of a true renaissance figure . No disrespect intended but Tommy Wiseau has twenty hard years in front of him before there’s even a conversation to be had.

I imagine it must be easy to read this piece and see nothing but snark. While it’s true, I’ve had a little fun at the expense of Mr. Wood, I can honestly say that my perspective is one of genuine admiration. Not the blind love of a child. I know enough about his less pleasant aspects to find him unlikeable at a personal level. Selfish, drunk and (sadly) at least casually racist is not the trifecta of delightful personality traits. But I am now fifty-four myself. And regardless of whatever edge I may have on him in a variety of ways, Ed Wood died having accomplished a lot more than I currently have. I understand that this not a qualitative assessment. Still, working within some dramatic limitations the man had a career. If I were writing this thirty years ago I couldn’t possibly legitimize that notion. At twenty-four it was all in front of me, and within arms reach too. Anybody who settled for a life that didn’t shine like mine was going to, was someone to be pitied. Thirty years on I know better. Painful lessons for a slow learner. I thought that the Ed Woods of the world were a joke. The truth is that however sad his life may have become, he was still a guy who loved movies as a kid and then got to make them. My life should only encompass such tragedy.

4 thoughts on “Ed Wood: The Real Disaster Artist

  1. Marty I agree with your assessment on Tommy Wiseau, and his film the room. I saw about 5 minutes of it and dismissed it as a waste of time. Since time is all that we have I really can’t imagine seeing the film :the Disaster artist” and wasting time on a movie that is about the making of a “BAD” movie. What has enthralled me through the years is the promotion of bad films. I’m sure the film is about the character of Mr. Wiseau and how he conned his way through the making of this film. But I have to say I understand your admiration of a filmmaker like ED Woods undoubtedly one of the most colorful characters of modern movie making to come along, but there are others who I’ve actually met that I sort of admire for their film making tenacity. Jesus Franco, a Spanish director who has made over 180 films throughout his career is one of my favorites. I met him at a convention a while back and through his broken English and my poor Spanish I got a chance to say how much I admire his work. But there are others sch as Don Dohler, Sam Sherman, Al Adamson, Larry Buchanan, Andy Milligan, Ted V. Mikels, Russ Meyer, Hershell Gordon Lewis, and even Joe Sarno that are all better examples of auteurs of the low budget cinema then Tommy Wiseau. All the following had a passion that drove them to make entertaining and sometimes thought provoking films. What all these directors didn’t have was the hype machine known as Hollywood. It was commerce for most of them. The almighty dollar was what determined if they make another film, and no matter what hype Hollywood says a film is. If it’s a dog it’s a dog no matter how they sell it. Back in the day it was different. Drive-ins, and dive theaters littered the landscape. Now it’s cable and the internet that does that.

    When I met some of these people they all had a passion. A lot don’t. That’s why I was saddened to read about your regret in not making films. It is easier now then it ever was. Everyone is making some sort of film, but are they good is the question. I myself tried and even though I finished it and put it out on DVD I still didn’t reach a success that these auteurs did. No matter. Nothing ventured nothing gained. I had a wonderful, frightful, and glories time getting the film done, and I did it all on film. I know I’m a masochist of some sort, but it was always what I wanted. It was the passion that drove me so I understand all those who I just described. My biggest thrill was meeting George Romero, and giving him my DVD. I expected nothing, but I wanted to tell him that he was a BIG influence in my life, and that he inspired me. Funny thing is that “Martin” is one of my favorite films of his. Anyway what I’m trying to say is that you should not think that you’ll never be able to make “THAT” film. If anything I would think by the sound of it that you still harbor a desire to make a film and that’s sometimes all it takes. You were a fairly good writer and this blog shows me that you still are. But as always film making is a collaborative art, and you should still seek those people who have passion. Don’t give up. Don’t think that filmmaking is out of you’re reach. It’s never been closer in fact. It takes time, and good story is always worth hearing and seeing. Is it easy? NO! Will I be famous? Probably not. But if it is something that BURNS in you. Go for it.

    So not that said. I’m a lunatic. Yeah I freely admit it. Only a lunatic does something that he or she knows that in all likelihood will do nothing for them. But it is something I do because it’s in my DNA. I remember all the conversations we had, and was drawn to you for your love of “Good” cinema. I can I not forget our discussion on “The Stuntman” by Richard Rush. I remember reading your script “a Change in the Weather”, and saying lets do this. I was so crazy about how you guys were trying to sell it to others, and I was always impressed at the proposals you came up with. I even have a copy of “Cabin Fever” still which I remember after reading it I said “when do we start”.

    It’s not too late Martin. But your passion in good storytelling is all that you need. I just don’t want to hear from you should of, could of, didn’t. You’re too talented of a guy to say that. I remember talking to your dad about movie making, and he explained to me that life was always a testing of ones limits. Pushing them further and further. It was after I commented on Clint Eastwood’s phrase about “a man has got to know his limitations” in the movie Dirty Harry. He was pretty emphatic about how wrong the phrase was. I got that. Never say never Martin. Till next pilgrim. You take care.

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    • Hi Karl. As I re-read your comment my mind’s eye was flooded with images of our time together in school. My clearest recollection is watching you dive down an escalator to save a 16mm camera from an ignominious end, as we were shooting the karaoke video to “Stop in the Name of Love”. That’s who you were, and still are. Passionate enough to dream about making movies, grounded enough to pay attention to what was right in front of you. There’s a reason why you’ve been able to carve out a life that is, vocationally at least, centered finding a way to earn a living without abandoning your heart. I’m currently working on a one act play with Robert Liebowitz, a former Brooklyn College theater student. I don’t think you ever met him but he was always in our world, albeit at an address a few doors down. It seems likely we’ll be able to enter it into one or more of the New York theater scene festivals some time in the late fall. Maybe if the stars line up for both of us you’ll be able to come see it. It’s not a movie but it’s something.

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      • Yeah, but it’s writing. If you like writing you write. Plays are fun. I know some really talented actors who do off-off broadway stuff. They are extremely talented. Plays are great! Keep doing it. Writing is what you’re good at. The more you do the better you get. I am always chomping at the bit, and even though I did a feature I swore no more when I was doing it . Yet now I find others out their just as talented and the feelings still stir. Never say never. Plays make good movies, and now more then ever digital filmmaking has leveled the field where you no longer need that army of people to make a movie. I was thrilled to see this website. I was just thrilled to be able to be talking to you. My technical background has served me well, but I do want to say that you have an innate gift and I just wanted to let you know that. So please continue and do hurry up. Life is short as I’ve been recently been made aware of, and I really think the world needs to hear your voice. Because I certainly want to. Hopefully I’ll be back in NYC soon, and we can have this conversation in person. Till then pilgrim carry on. All my best to you Martin. 🙂

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