Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ed Wood (1994)

  Unbridled optimism is a trait that has long been ridiculed by the public. It is a trait that is usually used as comic fodder in films; something to laugh at and oftentimes looked upon as the refuge of the simpleton. Of course cynicism itself is no better; it has become, for many, a defense mechanism to ease the pain of daily living. Ed Wood is a celebration of a man whose ideas exceeded his talents. Edward D. Wood, Jr. would go down in movie history as the world's worst director of all time, and his film Plan 9 from Outer Space the worst movie ever made. And yet what has contributed to his work getting more attention now than when they were first released is the fact that although the pictures he made were of varying quality you could tell that an enthusiast was behind the camera putting together the various pieces that make up a film, even if all those pieces didn't come together so neatly.
  Tim Burton took directorial reins on Ed Wood for several reasons. The first being that he was already a fan of the director's work; drawn in by the fact that no matter what project Wood was working on he treated the material as if it were Citizen Kane. As a result of Burton's admiration for Wood's work the film has an obvious bias; portraying Ed Wood not as a delusional hack but rather as a sincere artist. The second reason Burton had for directing was the relationship Wood had with Bela Lugosi which mirrored the relationship Burton had with Vincent Price. And finally after reading the script, penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Burton saw the film as an opportunity to make a character-driven film as opposed to one distinguished by visual flourishes.
  As a character-driven film it is on the actor's shoulders to breath life into the story and Johnny Depp delivers in every scene he's in. Depp studied Andy Hardy, Mickey Rooney, Ronald Reagen, and Casey Kasem to bring the character of Ed Wood to life. He carefully balances Wood's trademark blind optimism with his sexual quirks and manages to always keep the audience on his side. As we watch Depp play the character of Ed Wood we never slip and laugh at him. It is to Johnny Depp's credit that what could have turned into a very unfunny caricature of the director never does. Wood's sexual proclivity for dressing in women's clothing is treated not as a punch-line to a cliche joke, but just a matter-of-fact detail about Edward Wood's life.
  The meat of the film deals with Wood's relationship with Bela Lugosi, played by Martin Landau. These two men each believe that the other can help their careers, but in actuality it is their friendship and not their business partnership which has the most value for both men. Landau plays Bela as a man who aches for another chance at stardom and you believe that he may just get that opportunity. Bela, even in his 60's, never lost the ability to frighten people with a stare or subtle hand gesture. As Lugosi tells Wood during their first meeting, "The pure horror, it both repels, and attracts them, because in their collective unconsciousness, they have the agony of childbirth. The blood. The blood is horror." With that statement Lugosi gets to the heart of not just why the horror genre has always been popular, but also the fact that fear is a drug that the human race has been addicted to since we began to walk upright.
  Other important people in Ed's story are the various women in his life. The two most important being Dolores Fuller, his girlfriend at the start of the film, and Kathy O'Hara, the woman who would become his wife by the end of the movie. Although Sarah Jessica Parker's portrayal of Dolores has been criticized as shrill and unpleasant she is quite supportive of Ed and her demands aren't at all unreasonable. In fact her only mistake in the movie is being the voice of reason in a story populated by people completely entranced by the magic of film. Kathy on the other hand is wholly accepting of Ed and Patricia Arquette plays Kathy as the embodiment of Ed's optimism. Whereas many people in Ed's group might question his choices Kathy not only goes along with Ed, but she goes out of here way to feed his enthusiasm.
  Edward D. Wood, Jr. was somebody who wasn't that concerned about what movie he was making, but rather just having the opportunity to make a film was what thrilled him. When he was in the process of directing there would be two things that he was never without, his megaphone and a boyish grin on his face. And that was basically who Ed Wood is in Tim Burton's film; a boy who still believed that all you needed to make a movie was a good idea and a crew of people who shared your excitement for the project.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

  How do you classify a film that is equal parts comedy and tragedy? Can you even call it comedy if you cringe a bit after the laughter dies out? With Sunset Boulevard Billy Wilder utilizes his acerbic wit to knock down the glamour mask of Hollywood and show it as the grotesque and decaying whorehouse that it really is. Of course Wilder knew that by taking on Hollywood he would basically be biting the hand that fed him. A hand that had garnered him several Oscar nominations, a very healthy paycheck, and also the resources to create his brilliant pessimistic work. Yet as caustic as Sunset Boulevard is one can't help notice that the film is not so much an attack on the entertainment industry, but rather it is a dedication to all the shattered dreams that Hollywood has left in its wake.
  As broad a topic as Hollywood is Wilder concentrates his story on two people, a once great silent screen actress and a down on his luck screenwriter. These two couldn't be any more different from each other, but they do accurately represent a majority of people in the entertainment industry. You are either trying to get your foot in the door or struggling to not get pushed out.
  The silent screen actress, Norma Desmond, is played by Gloria Swanson who in real life had enjoyed success as an actress during the silent era and although she did make the transition into talkies her career never did take off like it had before. Swanson's portrayal of Norma Desmond is a combination of vampire, self-delusional actress, and possessive lover. Desmond lives in a mansion gaudily decorated and surrounded with constant reminders of her days as a star. Norma is careful to always surround herself with people and things that reaffirm her belief that she is still a star. Her self delusion is a means to protect herself from the reality that she is now merely a footnote in Hollywood history.

  William Holden, on the other hand, plays Joe Gillis as a man of desperation who exploits Norma from their very first meeting. Gillis is a man that has been chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine and sees Norma as a means to get back at least some monetary recoupment for all the indignities he has suffered. Yet his plan to milk Norma for all he could quickly falls to pieces. The longer he stays in her mansion as a pawn in her delusions of stardom the tighter Norma's insanity coils around Gillis till finally there is no escape from the inevitable.
  Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond's co-dependent affair as twisted as it was had started out as a mutually agreeable arrangement. Their affair did not grow so much from an emotional need to be together, but rather a more down to earth reason. Joe needed cash and Norma was starved for attention and companionship. Their arrangement could have technically continued for an indefinite amount of time. It is only when Joe starts to spend time with Betty Schaefer, a script reader played by Nancy Olson, that there affair starts to crumble. Joe's feelings for Betty although sincere can never be fully realized because he has entrenched himself so deeply in Norma's reality that Joe has become a male version of Norma. Whereas Norma deludes herself into believing that she is still a star; Joe pretends to stick around Norma for the money but in reality he sees his situation with Norma as an escape.
  Like many of Wilder's protagonists Joe Gillis is trapped in his job. His arrangement with Norma maybe yet another trap but at least he can wear the best suits, take a refreshing swim in her pool whenever he wants, and Joe Gillis is basically the center of Norma Desmond's world. He only leaves its comforts after having to admit to Betty and subsequently himself just what type of man he really is. And although Norma shoots Joe due to the threat of her having to face the sad truth of her situation if he left her; Joe goads her to shot him because of his unwillingness to go back to the harsh reality of the world outside of the mansion.

  Sunset Boulevard tackles as its subject opportunism and the consequences of trying to have a career in an industry that feeds on desperation. Billy Wilder knew that all success is fleeting, and in a business where you are only as good as your last film anybody who congratulates you on all your success today maybe clutching a knife ready to stab you in the back the next day.