Greetings, my friend! How good it is to share this darkness with you again, to glimpse flickering light dance off your cheek like a full moon blushing through treetops. How grand it is to occupy this red velvet of seats as if they were the gullets of neighborly monsters: we come to these spectacular jaws to sit still, to be changed together in that stillness, to walk into the transitively bright future of after the movie.
And if you’re not here beside me, if you share a different darkness, I still salute you with a cup of cola, a malted milk ball aloft. Wherever you are, my friend, I greet you, I see you even when I can’t. If there is a magic to this place (and let us proceed assuming there is, in hopes that we might alchemize our beige days), I suspect it must be the magic that turns our darkness—and so, our aloneness—into a void of communion, a portal by which those most weird and entrancing ideas may not only wayfare but become shared entities, touching me as they touch you in a kind of pixelated pollination and tentacular concord, a coronary impact straight into splendid atomic ignition—heart shape my mushroom cloud!
Is this orgiastic? Very well! Let it be orgiastic! Let our hang ups hang out, let them drift unsynced like a stray soundtracked moan. Here my despair lounges atop my joy, here my lust for the future and my stinking isolation commingle on an angora chaise—what is living a life but moving your inner orgy all around? To make a life is to storyize it in all its sweaty low urges and skyward aspirations, and to make a kind of confessional verse of mess, finding streams (of fluid, of consciousness) and riding them into uncertain corners. Maybe we need to make a movie to make a life—‘movie’ is just life moved differently. Maybe ‘after the movie’ is the afterlife beyond this moldering city called ‘humanity.’
Maybe, in order to ‘B-movie’ reality, we need to make a dream of Edward D. Wood Jr.
Before we dream, we have to reckon with the reality dreams recommend; the book on Ed Wood feels scripted in a permanent, reductive narrative arc. This reduction isn’t unique to his story: the dismissal of turbulent and turbulizing tendencies as aberrations of, and therefore failures to adequately meet, mainstream metrics of success (accusations of “bad director!,” “low-budget hack!,” “out-of-touch indulgence!”) is as sure a way as any to simultaneously bolster a corporate status quo’s profit margins (i.e. see this, not this) and police tendencies that represent a genuine threat to those margins. The reduction of difficult art—and here we mean any art that fundamentally makes consumption of consumer culture difficult to swallow—to marginalia is the primary feature of the take-based critical engagement that plagues much of modern cultural engagement. Ed Wood’s story, however—as this essay attempts to sketch—is as much a victim of the critics of Hollywood’s yesteryear as it is the flippancy of the 21st century.
Ed Wood made B-movies; they were not first-billed in construction or conception. Call them exploitation films, cheapies, quickies, grindhouse fodder, nudie-cuties; their unifying feature—aside from an astounding generosity to see humanity’s potential to produce weird alternatives to cruelty—was a lack of the kinds of resources, distribution, and praise that Hollywood or any mainstream could lay on its cultural artifacts. In reading Wood’s films not as unheralded high-art masterpieces but on the level of their writing (specifically and formally as B-movies), we hope to come to a more activated theory of disturbing historical—capitalist, patriarchal, heterocentric, white—mainstreams. “History,” as scripted as it has been historically, is not suitable to the story we need to script. The B-movie, the olfactory funk dwelling in the plain sight of genre, becomes the best cudgel for unsettling the cruel beige of narrative arcs.
And so, the story of Ed Wood (before we blow it up):
The auteur of several schlocky films of the early to mid-‘50s, Wood toiled in near-bunk inanity, first in B-movies and then in softcore nudies until his death in 1978. He’d be afforded a modicum of cultural reappraisal when he and his 1957 sci-fi opus Plan 9 from Outer Space were awarded ‘Golden Turkey Awards’ in The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), a smug hitjob published by brothers Harry and (former hack-critic, current reactionary Christian radio host) Michael Medved. Plan 9—known mostly to late-night TV audiences via entities like Chiller Theatre, a horror-flick program on New York’s Channel 11 WPIX—now received renewed interest as a cult object (‘The Worst Film Ever’) in the popular imagination, occupying a large enough chunk of the cinematic memory to warrant the Walt Disney Company greenlighting a biopic of Wood under their Touchstone label. The ensuing work, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), was nominated for and won multiple Academy Awards, cementing Wood as a mythically plucky, dashingly eccentric outsider in Hollywood mythology.
Like most prepackaged narrative arcs, this Ed Wood story isn’t untrue or even entirely misleading. Wood did make cheapo B-movies, before and after Plan 9. Jail Bait (1954) is a straight-ahead noir, Bride of the Monster (1955) an atom-age horror fiction, The Sinister Urge (1960) a slummy crime picture. Wood did write, act in, and direct a sequence of pornographic films beginning with Orgy of the Dead (1965) and culminating with the one-two punch of Nympho Cycler and ‘Necromania’: A Tale of Weird Love (Wood’s first stab at hardcore porn) in 1971. He is best remembered for Plan 9 from Outer Space—largely in the context of its myriad continuity issues, stilted dialogue, sub-shoestring budget, and crass special effects—and the film based on his life does seemingly get at some essential truth about the man’s perspective on art and life.
These are evidently the two ciphers for understanding Ed Wood, at least in popular psychic memory: either ‘The Worst Director Ever’ or the moving but specifically fictionalized subject of a Hollywood biopic. Ed Wood handily merits the affection its watchers accord it: Burton’s film suggests that Ed Wood’s art wasn’t filmmaking, but instead created a space where people living on the fringes—refugees and cranks, wrestlers and cross-dressers, disgraced horror hosts selling sex and death, and old actors chewed up by the Hollywood maw—could safely and joyfully gather and create, in spite of the status quo’s dismissal of them. This kind of film suggests an alternative to metrics of artistic success long understood to be incontrovertible; it’s not that ‘bad’ is ‘good’—this can obviously be true, and grandly so—but that existing as a caretaker of people gently in need of care can itself be an art, can be something worth remembering.
This too, though, is a narrative arc, literally so in the case of Ed Wood. For all its machinations and charms, Ed Wood still isn’t Ed Wood; understanding the two as interchangeable risks buying the elegance of screenplay structures over the baser realization that life and art are not only hard but actively opposed by pre-existing (studio/social) structures. It risks missing Wood’s art altogether in favor of an idea of him. That film’s decision to end at a triumphant premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space summarily dismisses both the next 20 years of Wood’s (struggle to make) art, and that art’s striking, sweaty achievements at the intersection of genre filmmaking and pornography—to say nothing of evading Wood’s tragic death at the age of 54, suffering from alcoholism and mostly penniless, structurally homeless, another Hollywood story hacked like so much cutting room celluloid. It was not a triumphant end.
It’s hard to read Wood’s life, partially because it’s a hard story and partially because there literally aren’t many recorded words: Burton’s film is partially based on Nightmare of Ecstasy, a 1992 biography that draws on myriad first-hand sources, many of whose memories and accounts contradict one another. The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr., a 1995 documentary by Brett Thompson, takes the same approach. Wood himself labored on a memoir, Hollywood Rat Race, written in 1965 but not released until 1998.
I appreciate Ed Wood’s decision to include and elide what it did; sometimes you have to make a movie to make (save) a life. I want to save Ed Wood, see him in the movie dark not as a punchline or a meme, something to be exalted or patronized, but just a beloved fellow traveler in the weird shores of want and get and loss and lust. We don’t come to this place to know Wood’s real life—let the ‘real world’ fall to the statisticians—but to read the phantoms and signs, to recognize our own laughably bad and itchy climaxes in these fantasies. We don’t have access to Wood’s life, but we do have his movies. We do have, in portion and portal, some of his dreams.
The first thing to notice about Plan 9 from Outer Space is that the dark ripples. Some would have you understand this to be a function of a cheap black scrim in a studio soundstage being used as a backdrop, but this isn’t the case: the dark does ripple. It doesn’t resemble the dark of this world. Look further, and notice no thing behaving as it should—the night air is strung, hung as if from fishing line. Bodies disappear between cuts, no explanation given for time or space elapsed or collapsed. The interior rooms and exterior walls of alien ships have corners that distend into saucer smoothness when the same vessel takes flight.
Reality moves like mercury in Plan 9, slipping and distending and absorbing and rewarping. It settles and unsettles. To call this motion ‘a mistake’ seems misguided. To call it ‘bad’ seems a defeatist, policing insistence of how the world must look.
To resist the urge to lineate: Plan 9—formerly Grave Robbers from Outer Space and sporting a plot roughly describable by that title—is not the essential Ed Wood movie. It does not stand for him, though it contains many of his hallmarks: dialogue that clangs, hammy and discombobulated performances, a frequent use of repurposed stock footage. But isn’t that dialogue a version of how Shyamalan writes, words that exist between their speaker and their meaning as sure as a lens exists before a camera eye? Doesn’t dialogue like this force the mouths saying it to register in a different, nonhuman way, freeing the film to speak of and by not its logics but its emotions?
To its performances, the same movement can be observed; they land like apparitions in a dream, unconfined by ‘realistic’ human behavior. Tor Johnson removes the poetry but not the anguish from Frankenstein’s monster; Paul Marco cluelesses the notion of policing into complete castration; Bunny Breckinridge drags the self-seriousness of Gielgud while highlighting the hot joy of theaterizing the world. These are essences in motion, and best of all is Maila Nurmi ramping up Vampira as far as she’ll go—hands too long, waist too cinched, eyes too bugged, the dead too sexy, the sexy too strange. By her own admission, Nurmi’s vamping silent performance was the result of the actor being unable to seriously utter the dialogue Wood had written for her, but even this silence conveys the film’s emotional truth: beyond the utterable shoreline of good taste is something more essential and essentially vital. Humanity’s urges towards the self-annihilative (in this case, emblematized by the advent of the atomic bomb) can only be combatted by a deep and obvious plea to treat each other better.
This is a notably (obviously!) gloopy solution to nuclear anxiety. It’s not elegant or particularly vigorous in its analysis, and as much as I want to point to Wood’s use of real army stock footage to depict his fictional military’s attack on the space invaders as purposefully disjointed—the US military should never feel like it belongs; it should always feel intrusive, in accordance with its function—the truth of the matter feels more practically motivated: a no-budget flick like Plan 9 had to lean on such editing tricks.
Such is the case with its use of Bela Lugosi, who died in 1956 and who appears in this film via repurposed footage from various unfinished projects such as The Vampire’s Tomb and The Ghoul Goes West. The silent footage is brief: Lugosi shuffling down the walkway of a house, smelling a rose, lurking outside a door, and, most notably, exiting a cluster of trees and flourishing his Dracula cape. This last shot appears multiple times and becomes a kind of trailhead for the film’s murky cartography—the trees representative of the graveyard, Lugosi’s motion towards the camera matched by the film’s movement into or out of this setting. Wood supplements this sparse B-roll with actor Tom Mason, hair whitened, face always cloaked up, one of the great fake Shemps in Hollywood history.
In effect, Lugosi near-literally haunts Plan 9, a shade no longer corporeal given walking life by the montaging of still images into a new kind of present. It’s tempting to account for this effect in aesthetic terms: in a film narratively concerned with the reanimation of dead tissue and emotionally concerned with the impact that pasts and presents have on futures of any kind, the dreamy re-apparition of Lugosi literalizes these anxieties along specifically cinematic means through the use of editing, dubbing, and endlessly generative blocking. “Their own dead will be used to make them accept our existence,” one of Plan 9’s alien invaders muses. Both the invader and the film’s director are positing exploitation as a means to a creative end.
Lugosi is also present in Plan 9 as a star name, making it the ‘last film appearance by Bela Lugosi.’ It is basically unknowable whether his appearance is a moving tribute by the filmmaker to an actor and friend whom he deeply respected, or Wood’s final exploitation of Lugosi’s stardom when the actor—suffering from clinical depression and addicted to morphine as a way of coping with sciatica—couldn’t turn down work of any kind. Lugosi’s son, Bela Jr., alleges the latter to be reality in The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr.; numerous associates and collaborators speak to the former in Nightmare of Ecstasy (this viewpoint is taken up in Burton’s Ed Wood, too). The truth—as it can often be— is probably somewhere in between.
Cinema isn’t bound by the truth. Or rather, its truth is specifically non-binding—unless that’s what you’re into. A medium obsessed with and by looking emerges directly from un-, sub-, or pre-conscious apparitions of desire, repulsion, and the long highway between these poles. You can’t always know what you want but you can watch to find out; maybe knowing isn’t a constructive use of our wondering about watching. As the Amazing Criswell taunts in Plan 9’s opening monologue: “You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here.” With a good dose of deference to the historical reality of filmmakers abusing their actors, there’s something constructively slurry about Wood’s proposal that exploitation itself can be a generative (rather than destructive) mode; Lugosi in Plan 9 violates good sense by insisting that bodies in the cinematic space are pliable, plastic, endless. The truth of cinema’s 24 times per second isn’t how reality is remembered but how it might be rendered, a real fantasy that violates (our) reality’s lack of one.
The truth is that both possible realities—celebration and exploitation, desire and repulsion, understanding and confusion—are true. In experiencing the tension of that both-ness, to watch the ensuing gonzo cultural object, Plan 9 from Outer Space, is to be reminded of the both-ness with which art can be made. ‘Bad’ and ‘good’ are as useless as metrics as they are designations for objects that don’t beg for solutions so much as they theorize different spaces for asking. We are all interested in the future! We are going to spend the rest of our lives there! The good form of ‘good art,’ it strikes me, has not delivered us to that future. We must seek new (ways for new) dreams.
To talk glowingly of Plan 9 does not necessitate ironic indulgence of its ‘badness’: the flip Mystery Science Theater 3000-fication of criticism, now manifesting as a kind of ‘Letterboxd review’ (“this happened to my friend…”) remains a sizeable threat to engaging with art, especially art made outside the conventions and structures of a mainstream. I predict: if nothing need be taken at face value, if everything represents an opportunity to manufacture social credibility, then the turbulent arts of Ed Woods the world over will become even less apparent in the book of human history. With their disappearance, so too goes the possibility of tensioning pre-existing forms—isn’t this the work of the B-movie? To literally alternate the A-track of history?—with tendencies honed outside dominant historical norms.
At the same time, to speak with affection for Plan 9 shouldn’t require a remounted argument for its inherent goodness, or craft, or artistry. Vulgar auteurism remains useful in so much as it remains vulgar. It presents an opportunity to redshift critical focus towards voices specifically vulgarizing the conventionality of the world, voices like Wood but also like Rudy Ray Moore and Fred Halsted and Doris Wishman and Donald G. Jackson and Jim Wynorski and Rob Zombie and Godfrey Ho and Wakefield Poole and Shine Louise Houston. ‘Good’ remains a convention worth vulgarizing. Bad taste remains our best defense against bourgeois incorporation. Let bad be bad and see the cruelty of good fall away.
And so it’s not that Plan 9 is playing some lightyears-ahead theoretical game with cinematic construction, making a theory of its bad movie-ness to comment or annotate or supplement its existence in film history. As a character in Glen or Glenda (1953) sagely muses, “The end of study is only the beginning of reality.” The reality is that this schlock is schlock! And it remains all the more affecting for it. Continuity errors indicate the fallacy of holding movies to the standards of ‘reality’ as much as they indicate slapdash construction by their maker; the poetic emerges in the aberrant. Rather than good craft or camp instinct, Wood possesses—like all the names in the paragraph above—a shocking relationship with his own unconscious and an effectual urge to present that unconscious onscreen. His films dream things he’s dreamed, recollections he’s maybe tried to organize in real life but can only manifest in the phantom space of film, that skin medium that covers truth to metamorphose it towards something like the desirous climax.
How else to account for Glen or Glenda, shot in four days in 1952 and conceiving of gender in ways both outdated and futuristic, both weirdly simple and compellingly weird? The central conceit of the film—arrived at via a framing conversation between a police investigator and a narrator-psychologist—articulates that the titular Glen can discard his gender-confused ways (and so, his ‘other self,’ the co-titular Glenda) only if his partner Barbara is able to provide him the unconditional love that his childhood was unable to produce. Barbara asks the psychologist if she should stop Glen from indulging his angora fetish only to have any notion of policing rebuffed by the doctor: “Love is the only answer.”
Wood—who, by most accounts, wore both men and women’s clothing throughout his life—plays Glen and Glenda. His then-partner, Dolores Fuller, plays Barbara. This casting alone immediately lends the film a meta-real (realist-fictive?) vibration to hum on; if Glen or Glenda isn’t wish-fulfillment, maybe it’s something more vital like wish-trying or fulfillment-designing. It’s how a life could be made. The film’s docudrama style effectively bites the sex-ed docs and spectacular addiction thrillers of early ‘50s America, makes it feel as curious formally as it is emotionally, indulgences in artifice to articulate a deep desire not as yet (but not never) utterable. This is experimental film as an experiment in living.
The film’s story, though, includes obvious quackery: Glen wearing women’s clothes isn’t something to be cured, even by love. And the reductive, outdated language that the cop and psychologist use (especially ‘transvestite’ and ‘cross-dresser’) to discuss Glen and Glenda’s desires clangs, insisting we see the possibilities suggested in Wood’s film alongside the violent history of transphobia that runs through Hollywood—or any American mainstream—from 1953 to 2022.
In their 2022 book, Before We Were Trans, Kit Heyam addresses some of the classification anxieties Glen or Glenda (and Ed Wood) introduces: “If historians start investigations of gender-noncomforming people by referring to them as ‘women dressed as men’, this immediately closes off any possibility of trans history. Words and phrases like ‘transvestism’ or ‘cross-dressing’, which suggest disguise—a disruptive form of gender expression that definitely doesn’t reflect the reality of a person’s experience underneath their clothes—have the same effect.” By the (largely unverified) accounts of Nightmare of Ecstasy, Wood didn’t want to transition and found wearing women’s clothes a matter-of-fact euphoria, which Glen or Glenda verifies: “Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even the lounging outfit he has on, and he’s the happiest individual in the world. He can work better…and be more of a credit to his community and his government because he is happy.”
The tone of this dialogue is deeply daffy, an outrageous joke on the chirpy faux-patriotism of other Eisenhower-era artifacts. It’s also outrageously lovely, a suggestion that understanding wanting to wear satin undies is as easy as wearing satin undies. Living is easy only in so much as people are allowed not only to feel, but to feel pleasure. And it’s not that Wood and his friend/collaborator Bunny Breckinridge—who lived as an out gay man whose intention to transition was well-documented by the press of the day but ultimately went unrealized—aren’t a part of trans history, but that their moveable, unnameable desires are that history. Heyam writes: “Like Susan Stryker—who points out that we can use ‘trans’ as a verb as well as an adjective—I want to take the word ‘trans’ back to its roots, which reflect a sense of movement between places.”
The cop and psychologist are narrative functions of Glen or Glenda, not players in its emotional truth. And Wood isn’t endorsing their deliberations but exploring the moveable corners of his own anxieties and desires. He willingly admits to those sensations, in his body as well as the psyche of his social/historical world, but does so in the language of an exploitation film, autobiographical in event and emotion but also structurally an assignment from independent producer George Weiss to capitalize on the public’s fascination with Christine Jorgensen. This willingness to exploit—a willingness that extends to exploiting ‘exploitation’ itself—echoes the Lugosi anxieties of Plan 9; in reckoning with the ‘bad taste’ of Glen or Glenda, we’re challenged to accept unknown dreams as reasonable reactions to both bad and good realities. We’re challenged to move into conceptions of reality that fantasize harder, want larger, feel deeper.
In spite of its outsize self-theoretical space, Glen or Glenda doesn’t hem and haw. It presents the case study of ‘Alan,’ who happily transitions to living as ‘Anne’ with the aid of medically-assisted gender transition: “Thus this case, which has a happy ending, is due entirely to the corrections made by medical science.” Our fantasy insists on preserving the lives of the people in them, even people we don’t or can’t know. Our living insists not only on maintaining, but in being truly, fully satisfied. Ed Wood is a joyful filmmaker in that joy exploits ‘living’ for something more sublime than its ontological implication. Movies move life (‘moving image’), make it more than.
Anne’s story is fantastic, in a literal and literary definition of the word: she and anyone else should have easy and affordable access to the treatments they need to survive joyfully. Anne’s speculative future stands in stark contrast to the historical reality of America and the incident that motivates much of Glen or Glenda’s run: the suicide of Patrick/Patricia after he’s been arrested multiple times for dressing in women’s clothes. Wood doesn’t dwell on this suicide, doesn’t reduce the man to narrative function understandable only as ‘victim.’ He gives the act its gravity. He lets Patrick read his own suicide note: “May I wear in death what I could not in life?” It’s a transmission of immense tragedy, fantastic and haunting and a reminder of all the unhappy endings.
Glen or Glenda is the unknown rendering itself as the possible. If it traffics in outdated (‘undated,’ really, as in of the past but maybe also the future) language, it does so to indicate how new shapes might emerge from old containers. It fundamentally treats its characters with a dignity not afforded to them by their cinematic or historical universe. More so, it treats itself—its filmic form and Wood’s shaping unconscious—with a dignity others do not accord it: a middle sequence presents Glen/Glenda’s nightmare, all anxieties and terrors manifesting in a silent ballet of scantily-clad women and bondage, part Minnelli, part Argento; Lugosi (as the film’s omniscient puppet-master) looking on, ogling, witnessing. “Yes, but what of the others?” he drones at the film’s end, immediately horrorizing Glen’s happy ending. “The less fortunate Glens the world over?” He flashes Dracula eyes, eyes that are, as in 1931, the movie camera to the soul. His wrinkles snap. There isn’t anything to make sense of it: “Ah, snips and snails and puppy dog tails.”
Of course, like the Medved brood before him, Leonard Maltin cited Glen or Glenda as “possibly the worst movie ever made” in his long-running Movie Guide. Which, sure. These are the milk bread men who architect the mainstream and set the narrative arcs that we wind up laboring under years later. They’re the offspring of the system responsible for keeping Wood underground, both in his time and in the treatment of his legacy afterwards. They’re the ones Wood is speaking to, maybe, in The Sinister Urge (1960), an exploitation thriller backdropped by a porn studio. “I look at this slush,” says one of the filmmakers in that movie, “and I try to remember, at one time, I made good movies.”
The easy read on Wood’s biography is that he was forced to transition in the early ‘60s from B-genre pictures to writing pornographic films as a way to keep the work and money flowing. And while this is no doubt partially true, Wood’s late period—defined not only by his numerous erotic scripts but also by a prolific output of largely-ignored fiction—is as fertile and febrile as any filmmaker’s, and feels just as weirdly personal and experimental (*experimenting) as his earlier work. Hollywood’s usual hangups regarding sex onscreen don’t need re-detailing here; the American film industry is at its most emblematically American in its puritanical policing of bodies and unwillingness to admit porn of any sort, let alone the grimy and unerotic nudies Wood created, into its own narrative arc, but it’s another conscious reminder of whose dreams were pushed through production and whose were forced to pool in other frames.
Wood wrote, directed, edited, and acted in Take It Out in Trade in 1970, his first softcore feature, and one that was long considered to be lost to time before its rediscovery in the mid-‘90s. In Nightmare of Ecstasy, author Rudolph Grey claims to have found a rare print during his research. The film—which played during a 2014 retrospective of Wood’s work at Anthology Film Archives and is viewable today via a release from the American Genre Film Archive—is a half-cooked detective fiction, sending its two-bit sleaze-dick, Mac McGregor, on the hunt for a wealthy couple’s lost daughter. Obviously, he uses the father’s promised fee to take multiple European trips, where he ogles women from behind various potted ferns. Obviously, the women are in clearly fern-less rooms. This dislocative cinematic space feels like the old Wood all over again, a bald display of cheap shooting constraints as much as a homey wink, a lurid giggle: no matter where you go, there you want.
Watching Take It Out in Trade, I think I encounter the color red for the first time. Red curtains promise pulling back, red dress improvises the shape of a body more than it holds one in it, red number-three ball on a billiards table makes a “knuCK!” sound like the one in your head when the teeth accidentally tip into each other mid too-much-kiss. A red tomato is brushed by a fingernail on a cutting board with a sigh and red shag-covered stairs lead up in a “house of ill-repute” (here we giggle), inviting not only steps but re-steps—when we see the same footage again, we’re dreaming, and when I close my eyes, I see the red shag-covered stairs that lead up to the red-comforter bed where I’m either bound up and tied or binding and tying a someone else. So much red in my head makes these faces and thighs and bellies red, too. We red at the touch, feel a rawing under the skin at the flesh rubbing flesh. It’s a sleazy transfiguration. The stakes here couldn’t be lower. We come to this place to try out each other’s fantasies, to experiment with dreams and see if they fit our shapes. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
27 minutes into Take It Out in Trade, Edward D. Wood Jr. shows up. He makes a seven-minute appearance as ‘Alecia,’ trading barbs with our private dick from the sharp confidence of a margarita-green dress and white mod boots, a mountainous blond wig, and a smile that’s more creased but just as broad as it was in Glen or Glenda. He’s so beautiful, so ugly, flip but not disengaged, possessed of a charm not describable in a casting director’s terms, but not entirely foreign to celluloid.
Like his other appearances as an actor in this period—Operation Redlight (1969), The Photographer (1969), Mrs. Stone’s Thing (1970)—he’s seemingly okay being humiliated by the narrative, playing the comedy low and scuzzy. The PI berates him, tears his wig off. I can’t save Ed Wood. He’ll die eight years after this footage is shot. All I can do is watch this movie and dream with it. “I’m in the 10th dimension,” Wood once told Valda Hansen, who appeared in Night of the Ghouls (1959). To get to beam him into this dimension, to introduce the radical turbulence of “why not” bad taste into this burning world…I am so, so grateful to share this movie thing with you.
Take It Out in Trade is, among other things, a Hollywood story—McGregor is shown using a restroom somewhere off Sunset as his office, walks past the Brown Derby in a few shots. Maybe it’s just the same shot a few times. The film is, I think, the only reasonable response to trying to live and make art in Hollywood, USA, to trying to oppose inevitable histories in 2022. When they go low, we go lower. “You make your living your way, I’ll make mine the only way I know how!” McGregor shouts at the end of the film, tied up and no longer able to just watch, getting off and giving in on a bed the color of bodies in collision. It would be vulgar to ascribe the sentiment to Ed Wood.