Josh Muggins's Blah Blah Blah

13: December 22, 2008

Getting Some Wood Again

There are moments when I suspect that I may be the worst writer in history. In contrast, there are other moments when I’m sure of it. Recently such moments have not been in short supply around here; I’ve even begun to wonder if I might not be the memoir-writing equivalent of the schlock horror director Ed Wood, bound for the sole writerly fate even more dreaded than obscurity: that of a laughingstock for the yet unborn.

To better understand what I might be in for, I rented the 1994 film Ed Wood. Well, okay, I pirate-downloaded it. Tim Burton can have me prosecuted if he likes, but he should know that I really did pay to rent this movie—on, I’m estimating, six different occasions—in the years soon after its video release, those being pre-online-piracy days.

They were pre-Josh Muggins days as well: I was a lowly magazine freelancer then, publishing under my real name. So this would be the first time for me to see one of my all-time favorite films from the perspective of an active memoirist. A critic once described Ed Wood as a creature who “clung for decades to the dark underbelly of Hollywood,” and I now wrangle with the prospect of one day being described in similar terms vis-à-vis the literary world. I was anxious to see how strongly I’d relate to the man who raised the bar for creative ineptitude.

I did not attempt a “running diary” (as I gather such stunts are called in the blogosphere) of my viewing of Ed Wood, as doing so would have interfered with my quest to get drunk, but I did jot down the lines that had a significant impact on me so that I might expand on them after sobering up.

“I’m just scared that it’s not gonna get any better than this.” (Ed lying awake after a scathing review of his play.)

The non-improving it in question, presumably, is the world’s reaction to his work and not the work itself, the putridity of which has provoked its poor reception. Here’s where my powerful identification with Ed kicks in like moldy mushrooms at an all-day Hot Tuna concert circa 1975. I like to blather on and on in this blog about how I write for myself and not for critical acclaim, but truth be told, I care what other people think and say about my work and I can’t stop caring. And yes, you bet I’m scared that it’s not gonna get any better than this.

“The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what’s causing them, but it’s upsetting all the buffalo.” (Ed riffing unironically on how he might cobble together an entire movie from discarded stock footage of military maneuvers and wildlife.)

It’s a funny throw-away bit, but it makes one wonder how many liberties Burton et al took with the real Ed Wood. Not that this movie lays any claim to being a genuine biopic, but still. Could he really have been such a naïf, such a wide-eyed man-child? More on this to come…

Ed: You’re much scarier in real life than you are in the movies.
Bela Lugosi: Thank you.
(Ed and Bela meet cute one day while Bela is out coffin-shopping.)

I brought to bear my usual passion for research (i.e., about twenty minutes poking around on Wikipedia) attempting to pin down the validity of the movie’s portrayal of the friendship between Ed and Bela Lugosi, by then a has-been junkie. Notwithstanding the protests of Bela’s son, who resents the movie’s implication that Bela’s family altogether abandoned him in his dotage, the general consensus seems to be that the fondness between Ed and Bela was genuine in both directions and not at all exploitative. That’s good to know.

“I think she’s a honey. Look at those jugs!” (Bela enthusing over TV movie hostess Vampira.)

Thus begins the slow seepage of my empathy away from Ed and toward Bela—something I don’t remember happening when I used to watch this movie at regular intervals back in the Nineties. After all, Ed’s a bug-eyed idealist who rebounds quickly from setbacks. That’s not me anymore. Moreover, his transvestitism notwithstanding, he has lengthy relationships with girlfriends portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette in their respective primes. And we’re supposed to scoff at this man?

Bela, on the other hand, is a lonely, creepy old guy who has nothing better to do most nights than get wasted in his cramped little room and obsess over boobs that appear on the screen in front of him. Well, then. If the shoe fits…

Dolores: What about this so-called Barbara character that’s obviously me! I mean, this is our life! It’s so embarrassing! (Ed’s live-in girlfriend reacting to the screenplay for Glen or Glenda while discovering that Ed is a transvestite.)

Ouch! I probably breezed through this scene on autopilot in years past—other than to note Ed’s first appearance in a blonde wig and women’s clothing. Watching it afresh in Josh Muggins mode, it cuts far too close to the bone.

Good grief. Is this really the way people react when they find out that they’ve been drafted into an autobiographical work? Even when they’ve been painstakingly fake-named, and when there’s little chance of anyone finding out (or caring) who they are? This isn’t the first time I’ve wrestled with this issue, of course, but I thought I had pinned it in two out of three falls and sent it to the showers.

In the final stages of editing a book, I make it a habit to read through the story trying to put myself in the position of each major character. How would I feel were I that person reading the scenes in which his/her doppelganger appears? When I feel my discomfiture rising—when it becomes too invasive or abrasive—I edit accordingly. Then I pat myself on the back, call myself a good boy, stick out my tongue in the general direction of Augusten Burroughs, and treat myself to ice cream.

Now I have to revisit the whole issue again, thanks to this damn movie. Just because I honestly can’t understand why someone could be embarrassed to be described as, say, a rather ditzy college girl who used to date the likes of me, it does not stand to reason that a former ditzy college girl who used to date the likes of me would be similarly bemused. People have different thresholds of shock and pain, as Dolores’s reaction—excessive as it seems—demonstrates. Damn it.

Paul: You were great as Karloff’s sidekick.
Bela: Karrrrrr-loff?? Side-keek? FUCK YOU! Karloff does not deserve to smell my shit! That Limey cocksucker can rot in Hell for all I care!

Bela’s anti-Karloff rant gets included simply because it’s one of the more oft-quoted segments of the film. It needs no explication, except to say that I had forgotten how long it goes on, with Bela kvetching about how simple the role of Frankenstein’s monster was, replete with grunting imitation. Has any actor ever had more fun on the way to an academy award than Martin Landau did? (Tangent alert: I have an anecdote related to this rant, but it would pull us too far off the topic at hand if I stuck it in here so I’m sticking it in a sidebar at the end.*)

Ed: Tor… Mr. Johnson… Did you ever fancy the notion of becoming an actor.
Tor: Not good-looking enough.

It’s easy to see why Tim Burton had to make this movie. The freakish cast of characters is right in his wheelhouse, and they’re all real people. The late Ed Wood merited a writing credit on Burton’s Big Fish, which in many ways is a romantic do-over of his life.

This casting interview takes place in the locker room after a brutal pro wrestling match, with Tor Johnson lying on his stomach to receive a massage and with me thinking Please, God, let that hair on his back be prosthetic. Tor is played by George “The Animal” Steele, a hefty pro wrestler who was lured into acting by an oddball director in order to play a hefty pro wrestler who was lured into acting by an oddball director. Moreover, in the heyday of his wrestling career, Steele was often mistaken by fans for Tor Johnson—or at least for the iconic Halloween mask that Tor inspired. See what you can learn in twenty minutes of online research? I love Google.

Ed: I’m no good… I made the worst movie of all time… All I want to do is tell stories! The things that I find interesting.

I hear that! I hear that!

Bela (as Dr. Eric Vornoff): Home? I haff no home. Hunted! Despised! Living like an animal! The chungle is my home! But I shall show de vorld that I can be its master! I shall perfect my own race of people! A race of atomic supermen that vill conquer the vorld! Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh.

Through some weird organic symbiosis, Bela’s and Ed’s meager talents of acting and writing fuse here (abetted to no small degree by Howard Shore’s swelling score) to create something akin to genuinely moving art. It’s perhaps the most unexpected moment in a movie chockfull of weirdness.

It’s not quite Once more unto the breach, dear friends!, but presumably this is the closest Ed ever came to writing a bona fide purple passage.

Dolores: You’re wasting your lives making shit! Nobody cares! These movies are terrible!

Sarah Jessica Parker can get really annoying at times.

Bela: There is no such thing as bad press, Eddie. Man from New York even told me he’s putting me on the front page! First celebrity ever to check into rehab!

I keep trying to tell myself that there’s no such thing as bad press, but it’s not sinking in…

They should have stopped the line there, by the way. The “check into rehab” bit is a glaring anachronism. In the late Fifties, it would have been called drying out, getting clean, or any number of things, but not “checking into rehab.” The writers fell in love with a gag-line that was too cute for its own good and then couldn’t bear to kill it. I know the feeling; I won’t cast the first stone. I’m just saying.

Ed: And cut! That was perfect!

Here is another scene that has just become too famous to be left out: the true and documented incident in which Ed and crew break into a warehouse to steal a giant mechanical squid but neglect to steal its motor, forcing Bela to lie down in cold, scummy pond water and manually make the rubbery tentacles flail around him while screaming in terror.

It’s a running gag throughout the movie that Ed enthuses “That was perfect!” after a take in which things have gone obviously, horribly wrong. The gag carries a sort of reverse jujitsu here in that, given the circumstances, this take probably couldn’t have come off any better than it did.

“Now that was a premiere!”

I’ve not been able to determine whether the event to which Bela refers actually took place, but here’s how it’s portrayed in the movie: Ed and the cast have arrived late to the premiere of Bride of the Monster to find a theater full of howling, jujube-hurling fans. Ed’s attempts to soothe the savage beasts with a spooky amplified voice-over fall flat, Vampira (Lisa Marie) has her breasts massaged by a horny ten-year-old, and finally the whole crew has to flee for their lives. Safely ensconced in a taxi with the rabid throng receding behind them, Bela delivers the above encomium.

Ed: Did you see that kid grab Vampira’s boobies?
Bela: I envied him.

I wonder how many takes they had to do on that premiere-gone-wrong scene. (Bear in mind that Lisa Marie was the director’s girlfriend.) Did the same lucky kid get to squeeze them over and over again? Or did they rotate the part among the boys to make it fair? I, for one, need to know these things, but sometimes even Wikipedia lets you down.

Kathy: You’re lucky. Eddie’s the only person in town who doesn’t pass judgment on people.
Ed: That’s right. If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.

(Ed’s bride-to-be admonishing the freshly unemployed Vampira to lay off the condescension.)

Amen. If you’ve read my first memoir, you can understand why I’m a great believer in second chances. In third, tenth, fiftieth and seven hundredth chances, too. If I get ‘em, everybody should have ‘em. If I were into fantasy baseball, I’d still be drafting Steve Howe every year.

Ed: That’s it! I can’t take it!
(Ed at the end of his tether, besieged by his Baptist financial backers and their petty demands.)

This sounds a lot like me back in my thirties, trying to parlay a very low-profile freelance magazine-writing gig into a book deal. I didn’t have financial backers to deal with, though; my bête noire was literary agents, who would take months to respond to a query or a submission only to cough up a form letter.

The evolution of the print-on-demand industry lets writers of my ilk run a nifty end run around these guard dogs of the traditional publishing world, so I’ve ceased dealing with them, much to the benefit of my cardiovascular system.

Ed, alas, what with film being his medium, did not have the option of self-financing. Which was dreadful for him personally, but wonderful for the movie, for this outburst leads to him taxiing to the nearest bar, still in drag, where he runs into…

Ed: Do you know, I’ve even had producers re-cut my movies.
Orson Welles: I hate it when that happens.
Ed: And they’re always trying to cast their buddies! It doesn’t even matter if they’re right for the part!
Orson: Tell me about it.

The encounter is pure wishful thinking on two levels. For one, Ed himself wished for it as long as he and Orson Welles shared above-ground space on earth, for he really did revere Welles—saw him as a kindred spirit, both of them being rare writing-directing-acting triple threats. But neither party ever made any claim to such a tete-a-tete.

Likewise, the filmmakers couldn’t resist the indulgence of creating this scene, and for once I don’t object to the blatant mangling of facts. In this case, it’s enough that they might have met. And had they met, wouldn’t it have gone something like this? Wouldn’t the greatest and awfulest filmmakers of all time have quickly found common ground in the frustrations of getting a movie made?

I’ve long held the (admittedly rather snooty) notion that the world is basically divided into producers and consumers of culture, and that the producers’ club is clearly the exclusive one. You don’t need talent to get in but you do need perseverance and a completed product, and that’s where 99.9 percent of the applicants fall down. You need to, as they say, git ‘er done. And say what you will about Ed Wood, he got ‘er done over and over again in circumstances far more daunting than those Welles faced. Ergo, he makes it into the Producers-of-Culture club, where we all embrace him as one of our own.

Ed: Ahh, Mr. Welles, is it all worth it?
Orson: When it works it is.

Vincent D’Onofrio practically takes over the whole movie in his few minutes here as Orson Welles. He never gets enough credit. He got his big break as the madman Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, you know, and a few years after Ed Wood he would turn in one of the great physical-comedy performances of our times as the redneck whose body is possessed by a giant insectoid alien in Men In Black. Orson Welles and a giant insectoid alien in the same decade? That, my friends, is range.

“Ed, visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”

(Me pounding the desk) Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

Isn’t that it? Isn’t that the whole ball of wax, right there?

“Vision” seems too grandiose a word for what the likes of Ed and me do, but after all, a vision doesn’t have to be a grand or noble thing so long as it shimmers in the mind of its creator. My visions aren’t on the scale of, say, a reunified Korean peninsula or even a decent English film version of Don Quixote. In fact, they amount to nothing more than collections of anecdotes that I feel compelled to tell about my funny or heartbreaking relationships with Japanese women, or stuff that happened to my friends and me in college. Etcetera. Indeed, my visions are the etceteras of life. Mundane stuff, to be sure, but damn it, these are my visions! And they! (Bam!) Are! (Bam!) Worth! (Bam!) Fighting For! (Bam!)

“See? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” (An alien in Plan 9 from Outer Space, shortly before being inexplicably vaporized, to humans who have just done something stupid,.)

Personally, I don’t really relate to a superior being venting his frustration to the inferior minds around him. Heck, even when I’m teaching English composition class to freshmen here in Japan I make no assumptions to intellectual superiority. I take it on faith that there are always at least several people in the room who trump me in terms of raw intellect, even if they can’t manifest it in English. I suspect, however, that this speech neatly nutshells the internal sentiments of almost any of the Japanese females that I describe in my first memoir during the period of their lives that included me.

“Greetings my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends: future events such as these will affect you…in the future.”

I recently wrote at length about HBO’s Deadwood without a word about the estimable Jeffrey Jones, who seemed wasted in the series. As the jabbering ninny Criswell, though, he’s having almost as much fun as he had playing the idiot emperor in Amadeus. At any moment you expect his tongue to actually burst through the skin of his cheek.

“This is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.” (Ed’s wistful, ironic revelation while watching the premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space.)

Ed’s got the jump on me here. I haven’t yet made the work that I hope or expect to be remembered by.

Now, this was not an idle statement on his part (if indeed he made it in real life). Ed was nothing if not prolific. While the movie implies that his output was sporadic up until Plan 9, in fact he had directed eight feature films and a TV episode (according to IMDB) by that time.

The take-home point for me: I’ve got to get cracking on my output. As I type these words, I’m exactly, to the day, one year shy of Ed Wood’s age at the time of his death at age 54 years, 2 months. I am duly humbled by this revelation.

Ed: Hey! Let’s get married. Right now! Let’s go to Vegas.
Kathy: But Eddie, it’s raining and the car top is stuck.
Ed: It’s only a five-hour drive, and it’ll probably stop by the time we get to the desert. Heck, it’ll probably stop by the time we get around the corner! Let’s go!

(Ed and Kathy slipping out of the Plan 9 premiere to drive off triumphantly—well, by Ed’s standards at least—in an open convertible in a driving rain.)

Throughout the movie, there’s this constant tension between Ed’s real bio and this sunnier, fictional theme park of a life toward which the movie wants to lead its viewers by the nose, and that divergence is strained most forcefully at the end. The movie’s implication is that Ed and his bride ride off to live happily (if wetly) ever after: Come, my dear, grow old with me: the shittiest movies are yet to come. The movie version of Ed is nothing if not resilient, armed with an endless reserve of optimism to overcome all critics.

The murkier reality is that Plan 9 really was the apex of his career. Afterward, writing and directing opportunities became fewer and farther between, and that dark underbelly became slipperier and harder to cling to. Kathy did stick by him to his dying day and beyond (she never remarried), but she could not spare Ed from the devil’s two-pronged pitchfork: drink and depression. In his later years he resorted to the porn industry for work and finally succumbed to a heart attack while watching a football game on TV. Kathy, in the next room, ignored his cries for help because Ed had often feigned heart attacks, Redd Foxx-like, as a joke.

Not a pretty story, I know, and I’m sorry if I’m the one breaking it to you. But I tell you what: Go to IMDB and check out the respective careers of Ed and Orson Welles in the years following that putative heart-to-heart that they mighta, coulda had one day in an LA bar. Welles’s directing and writing career up till his death in 1985 (on October 10, by the way—Ed’s birthday) is much sparser and scarcely weightier than Ed’s resume for that same period. Yes, Ed was writing feature-length scripts for $100 a pop while subsisting on convenience store vodka and churning out the likes of The Love Feast and The Cocktail Hostesses and Five Loose Women. But meanwhile, Orson was coasting along on commercials for supermarket wine and awing the easily awed Merv Griffin with his magic tricks. Which path would you choose to follow?

I come away from this viewing of Ed Wood, and from my study of the man’s real life, both shamed and rejuvenated. He didn’t cower in a secure day job or go for four years without releasing any new product. He was out there pitching day after day after day until it killed him.

There are a lot worse things that could happen to a writer than to end up dubbed “the Ed Wood of memoirists.” And I’m going to get cracking on the One I’ll Be Remembered For. Just as soon as I polish off this here vodka.

* Sidebar

Not long after the movie came out, there was an eerie reenactment of the “ranting Bela” scene at my then employer, "N” University in Yokohama. A professor of agronomics there—an Iranian expat—crusty, volatile and beetle-browed in a way highly suggestive of the Bela of Ed Wood, had devoted much time and energy into luring a younger and more famous agronomist to join the faculty, finally meeting with success. This was to be the crowning glory of the old man’s career: recruiting as his own successor a hip and celebrated young academic--sort of the Li’l Wayne of Japanese agronomy, if you will. At the last minute, however, the younger man backed out to take a position elsewhere, much to the embarrassment of my Iranian colleague. Shortly afterward, one of my students had the misfortune to approach the great man and remark in an offhand manner about an excellent article he had recently read by said younger agronomist—his name was something like Harada—which remark greatly exercised my aged colleague.

When the shaken lad finished relating the encounter to me later, I asked him, “Have you seen that movie, Ed Wood?” He said that he had. (The Burton/Depp combo has long been highly esteemed in Japan.) “What you’re telling me sounds an awful lot like Bela Lugosi in that scene where Karloff is mentioned,” I noted, to which the lad said, “It was a lot like that.” For months after that, he and I would greet each other on campus with faux-outraged cries of “Harrrrrada? Side-keek?” Etc., etc.)

Okay, you had to be there.