In the wake of Batman v. Superman, there's been a great deal of discussion about who owns art and who, if anyone, should be its gatekeepers. To some degree, the same issues are at the heart of the recent controversies surrounding Gamergate and the Sad Puppies. Whether you're talking about an individual work or a genre or even an entire industry, people are asking "who does this belong to?" Is it the ardent fans? The would-be arbiters of taste? The inspired creators? The money-fueled studios? The diehard traditionalists? The boundary-pushing innovators? Who among these groups of individuals gets to decide what's acceptable and what isn't, let alone what's good, or great, or even art in the first place?
These are questions at the heart of Tim Burton's Ed Wood. The film centers Wood himself, a purveyor of schlock and the creator of, by acclimation, the worst movie of all time, who is nonetheless steadfast in his belief and commitment to the greatness of what he was creating. The film also spends a great deal of time focusing on his best friend, Bella Lugosi, a washed up former star of B-movie flicks who spends on his dwindling funds on drugs but yearns for the good old days when he was a star. Each of these men tries to create art, to do something they believe in, and faces the world's indifference or disdain for the fruits of their labors.
There's a Butters-like quality to the film's titular protagonist. Played with unrelenting zeal by Burton favorite Johnny Depp, he is endlessly optimistic, willing to face any setback or insult as a mere bump in the road to inevitably success. Wood is unfailingly chipper and convinced of the beauty of his art,. What makes the character is his sheer earnestness in all of this. From the opening sequence where we see him mouthing along the lines backstage in his little-seen play, to the final scene where he does the same sitting in the balcony in a packed house there to see his magnum opus, Wood believes in the work, without a hint of irony. It doesn't matter if what he's producing bombs; it doesn't matter that his girlfriend didn't understand it or that he has to make it on a shoestring budget. it's an earnest reflection of his soul and his vision, and by god that's more than enough for him.
At the same time, Lugosi (Martin Landau in arguably his finest hour) is a tragic figure, the fallen artist convinced of his own greatness and scornful of the world that refuses to recognize it. Landau infuses a divine pathos into Lugosi here, with a performance that highlights the way the veteran performer is both bitter and his losses but sympathetic in his affection for Ed, how he has both earned his current plight with his drug habit and yet is pitiable in the circumstances it's left him in, and how he can be a sad, even dangerous man, but also still shows the last gasps of a man who believed in his abilities and in his work just as much as Ed does. He is Ed's greatest ally, his entry to the world of filmmaking, and his continuing inspiration.
The heart of the film comes in a late scene shared between Ed Wood and Orson Welles. Their conversation is far from subtle, with Welles complaining about having to compromise and espousing the virtues of sticking to your vision, but it works. Burton draws an unexpected parallel between the two unlikely "visionaries" here. There is a beauty in artistic purity, he seems to be saying, whether it comes from one of cinema's most venerated auteurs or from it's most deluded-if-earnest creators of crap. The film posits that all art contains a piece of the author's soul in it, from cinema's highest highs to its lowest lows, and that connects everyone with the foolhardy impulse to try to make it.
Ed Wood itself is a tribute to the notorious director's vision. Filmed in black and white, the movie features the herky-jerky rhythms, grandiose introductions, and broad-yet-endearing patter that characterized the work of the real life filmmaker. From styles of blocking and framing that have fallen out of favor in the present day, to low shots and dutch angles that convey the disorienting quality of Ed's trips to visit Bella, Burton tries to honor Wood's vision by embracing his style. There's something charming about seeing these techniques employed in a major motion picture produced four decades after Wood's heyday, and it's as pure a vindication of the idea that there's something worth loving in Wood's art as any line of dialogue.
But there's another side to the question of who art belongs to and what makes it worthwhile that the film explores. When Wood makes Glen or Glenda, a film about cross-dressing that burns Ed's bridge with one ramshackle studio and makes him the laughing stock of another, he isn't discouraged but does have an uphill climb ahead of him. And yet in casual conversation, Ed's friend Bunny announces that he's going to Mexico to have a sex change operation, because this much-derided picture spoke to him, and he cannot help but take action in its wake.
At the same time, there's an irony to the scene where Ed is at the premiere of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and declares that this is what he will be remembered for. The irony is that it's true, but as a matter of infamy rather than praise. And yet, despite the laughable reputation and odd sort of fame Wood and his film would achieve, Burton makes clear that Ed and his cohort see the picture in a very different light -- as Ed's love letter to the deceased friend who so inspired him, by capturing his last little moment of beauty. The world may have written off Lugosi, or failed to recognize his achievements, but Ed did, and it changed his life.
And maybe that's all you need. When Ed's girlfriend lashes out at him in the midst of his belly dancing at the Bride of the Monster wrap party, she declares that they're all freaks and that the films Ed makes with this motley collection of souls are terrible. She's not wrong necessarily. By the end of the film, Ed has found himself as part of quite a group of misfits, odds and ends who don't fit into what one expects from Hollywood glitz and glamor. And history has deemed his pictures lacking in quality, if not in passion. The appeal of Ed's film, not to mention the band of people who find him and his work endearing rather than baffling or worthy of derision, is incredibly narrow.
But so what? Burton connects Wood's filmmaking with his crossdressing, with the idea that he is at his most fulfilled when he can be his most open and unvarnished self, on the screen, in the bonds of friendship, and in romance, with acceptance rather than judgment. There's a profound jubilation in that dancing scene, where after wrapping up another outing of doing the thing he loves most, Wood surrounds himself with people who are on his wavelength, who love and appreciate his talents and his work, and whom he can feel comfortable expressing his true self with, regardless of his sartorial or directorial choices. That is a wonderful, joyous thing. And by the same token, Ed Wood suggests that there must be merit in anything that comes from such a place of truth, of happiness, of liberation, and of earnestness, no matter what it lacks in technical or performative skill, or how small it's audience.
I don't necessarily love Ed Wood. As fun and sweet and as heartbreaking as the can be, it runs a bit long, indulges a bit too much here and there, and repeats the same beats a little too often. But I do love what it stands for -- the idea that art comes in all shapes and sizes, and if it can still move people, if it can still make even one person happy, then it has a place in this world, no matter what you or I or anyone else thinks of it. Art doesn't belong to the creators, or to the devotees, or to the tastemakers, or even to the man writing the checks. It belongs to anyone who loves it, to anyone who can wring that kind of joy from it, regardless of whether it's pretty, or clean, or even good.
True story of a director ranked one of the most of all time. Great casting. Johnny deep gave an outstanding performance.
Everything about this movie is perfect. I don't think there is a way you can change it to make it any better. I would highly recommend this movie any time. Especially if you want to learn about the crazy and interesting life of "Ed Wood".