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Simply the Worst: Edward D. Wood Jr.”s “Glen or Glenda?”

Simply the Worst: Edward D. Wood Jr.''s "Glen or Glenda?"

Recognizing that the main purpose of this symposium is to identify and dissect “bad” films from “good” filmmakers, and not being clinically insane, I am not about to claim that Edward D. Wood Jr. was anyone’s definition of a good filmmaker, nor indeed that he was even a competent one. What I am prepared to argue, however, is that for a legitimate cinephile, intent on exploring the boundaries of cinema’s appeal, the matter of Wood’s technical competence is not structurally relevant to an appreciation of his work. His 1953 film Glen or Glenda? (a.k.a. I Led 2 Lives; a.k.a. I Changed My Sex; a.k.a. Male or Female?) stands apart for being Wood’s only attempted foray into “art” cinema territory—and for this reason is now widely considered to be an atrocity (both by those that like Wood’s films and those that don’t, but most of all for those that haven’t seen any of them) and the most catastrophic failure of a singularly bad career.

So when considering the “worst” entry in someone’s body of work, it must surely be incumbent on the writer to decide what he or she considers “bad” in the first place (a truism that seems particularly apt when considering Wood’s oeuvre). The stark, sometimes colorful differences of opinion on what constitutes bad filmmaking (as well as the numerous areas of consensus) are ties which bind cinephiles together. It’s not unfair to suggest, for example, that words like “predictable” and “competent” are frequently deployed by serious film critics as pejoratives in reviews. By the same token, words like “experimental” and “engaged” are positive expressions more often associated with directors with an artistic statement or legacy in mind. By such apparently tenuous logic, the work of Edward Davis Wood Jr, who had none of the former qualities but plenty of the latter, merits attention.

Andrew Sarris’s development of auteur theory in the United States would have Wood fall at the first hurdle: “The first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.” But the immediate conclusion that Wood is an incompetent writer/director (and by the by, actor, editor, and production designer) is not only too easy, but also fatally reductive—it leaves nowhere to go—it condemns the man’s work to irrelevance, permitting no further comment. Wood was unquestionably an auteur by every other accepted criteria available (in fact he was quite a spectacular example of the concept), but more importantly, Wood was producing films of lasting appeal to inquisitive audiences, films which contained more poetry and personality than are even attempted by at least a dozen highly competent and successful filmmakers we could name today. Read the rest of Julien Allen’s entry in Reverse Shot’s “Simply the Worst” symposium.

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