Glen or Glenda
Unintentional Greatness (Glen or Glenda, 1953)
14 November 2008
If you pass the limits of bad, will you end up with good? It’s worth a thought.
Most moviegoers know the story of Edward D. Wood Jr, but I’m going to tell it anyway in case you haven’t heard: It is a famous ”truth” that Ed Wood holds the title for The Worst Filmmaker Who Ever Lived. During the 1950’s he had ideas for movies that nobody wanted to touch, forcing him to passionately produce them all on his own; these films (all in all, the most famous one beingPlan 9 From Outer Space), were shot and edited momentarily, it seems, with insane story lines, dialogs at the edge of parody, zero acting, cardboard backgrounds, you name it, these movies were sensationally bad.
At least, in a technical sense. What Wood had was an extreme passion for movie making, his enthusiasm for the medium was endless. He loved every frame he ever shot, I guess, and while making the films he did he would stop at nothing, nothing, to get them done. It may be the paradox of the century, but there is little doubt that Ed Wood was born to make movies.
Over the years, Wood’s cult following has grown and evolved, no doubt due to the Tim Burton loving biopic Ed Wood (1994), which has become something of a 90s classic these days, where Burton’s meticilous sets and Johnny Depp’s blazing lead performance, immortalised Wood’s story. Originally, Wood’s films were exotic underground pleasures it could seem, for people who really knew their bad movies. As Ed Wood has become a name more familiar in the mainstream, his films has actually gotten it’s honest defenders. Most people see Wood’s films as party starters, greatly amusing movies that are good for no other reason than because they are so bad, they’re good. Then there’s people who mean to say that despite the undeniable technical flaws of his films, Ed Wood was one of the most fascinating movie makers in film history, often way ahead of his time, and made films that actually are good, because of the genuine humanity within them.
A thing or two about Art
I fall into the latter category, even though it’s taken me several films to understand it. Not until I saw Glen or Glenda did the pieces fall together. It’s a film totally unique, even though it works on the basis of what I like to call the ”last chain” of film art.
Bare with me while I explain this seemingly rather pretentious statement. Film is, per definition, art. If you make a movie, you have made a piece of art. In my mind, there is no way to deny this. What that art is, and how it can be presented, is another thing, but the very causality between film and art is self-evident – a film is a piece of art. This is the basic, first chain of art.
Now, some film makers more than others, are well aware of the fact that they are making art. Some don’t think about it that much. There are many famous European film makers who’s films are labeled art, even though they themselves did not care much for the term itself, but one very good example is the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and perhaps in particular his film Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975). It’s notable as an ”art film”, since it has no apparent plot, being a collection of scenes depicting childhood memories and contemporary scenes simultaneously – added to that, newsreel footage and whatnot, all in a mix creating the sense of one unity, one moment and one big cinematic catharsis.
Sure, it’s a wonderful film – one of my favorites, and I am a qutie harsh critic – but it is only a ”work of art” in a conventional sense. It’s made out of the artistic will of Tarkovsky, in contrast to a modern day Jerry Bruckheimer production made out of the will to please the audience and cash in the bucks. But, as the first chain proves, film is art no matter what. Some films care for this fact in particular, and specifically tries to acchieve the highs of ”good art”, some films might be conventional but art in their own right, and some do not care if they’re art or not, even though they nevertheless are. So if the first chain tells us that film is art, the second chain is film in contrast to, or combination with, this fact, pro- or anti- or neither.
But the third chain of film art is something different. It recalls an old saying I happen to believe in – Everything is art. Anything that our senses can grasp and comprehend, enough to make a review. A movie. A theathre house. A dinner. A hamburger. Remember how Wes Bentley’s character in American Beauty (1999) reasons – ”There’s so much beauty in the world”, he says while filming that famous plastic bag hovering across the pavement. I agree, the plastic bag is beautiful, the plastic bag is a piece of art. I could, if I were that mad for it, review that plastic bag, compare it to other plastic bag, the aesthetics of it’s material and of it’s colors, perhaps how well it hovers across the pavement in contrast to similar plastic bags.
One thing though – the plastic bag doesn’t know it’s art.
Enter Glen or Glenda, a movie that also doesn’t know it’s art. Perhaps it thinks it is art because of it’s subject matter, because it thinks highly of itself, perhaps it thinks as good (why do I mention the film as ”it”? I don’t know, just go with it), perhaps it thinks it has acchieved it’s goal – well, it certainly hasn’t. In fact, I’d say it’s so good, not because it’s so bad. It’s good despite the fact that it’s bad.
Good despite bad
Now, let me just insure you that I have not lost my mind. The movie is not ”good”, in any conventional sense. Few things in the movie seem ”directed” by anyone, the scenes are barely staged, the actors…. um, I was going to say that the ”actors aren’t acting”, but let me rephrase it: the people in the movie, aren’t acting but basically just reading their lines, there is no story told, most of the film comes off as an infomercial about cross-dressing and sex changes, when it is not interrupted – for no apparent reason – with stock footage of roaming buffalos and an excentric Bela Lugosi shouting things like ”Pull ze ztringsss! Pull ze ztringsss!” or ”Bevare, bevare of ze biig greeen dragon dat zits on your doorstep…. bevare…. take care… bevare” – which comes off as totally insane. The actual story that is jammed into this film is that of Glen who is a closet transvestite – his female self, Glenda – who tries to get up the nerve to tell his wife about this ”problem” of his. Now, Ed Wood was himself a transvestite, and the story of Glen, or Glenda, is obviously his attempt to tell his own story. Naturally, Bela Lugosi has got nothing to do with it, nor has roaming buffalos and overall, there’s a million things that make no sense. Added to that, the production itself is basically just below zero with the previously mentioned anti-acting and anti-directing.
All of this is obvious. How can I then say that it’s actually a ”good” film? Because, I am. And it is not ”bad because it’s good”, it’s good despite it’s bad.
Well, I’d like to compare it to a film that really is so bad it’s good – like for instance, Cool as Ice (1991), if you recall that 2 cool 4 school flick that tried to keep Vanilla Ice hip. It’s a movie that, when I watched it for the first time, made me laugh throughout the entire duration of it – it was an untentional comedy. A movie that’s ”so bad it’s good” is always an unintended comedy. Many of Ed Wood’s films, like Bride of the Monster or the priceless sequel Night of the Ghouls, are unintentional comedies, that is to say movies that are so bad they are good. But the reason I actually like Glen or Glenda is because of the fact that it is not an unintentional comedy, it’s an untintentional…. something else. Bride of the Monster is a horror film that fails miserably in it’s attempt to scare, Cool as Ice is a teen-drama that fails miserably in trying to be gripping. In both cases, the result is naturally just plain funny. But upon failing miserably with his autobiographical tale, Wood actually unintentionally makes something else. I rarely laughed during Glen or Glenda, in fact it was like I forgot I was watching one movie and started to think I was watching another – as if it was a movie that intentionally used bad acting, momentarily pushed up sets, the style of the infomercial and the Lugosi segments to create, yep, you guessed it, a work of art.
The real reason for this is because of a talent Wood actually had, a talent that comes with any passionate artist – style. I remember when I was ten years old, shooting a movie with my friends in my neighbourhood. While I probably was more directorial than most other kids with a video camera, all of the films came out worthless in any standard sense. But they did have a certain style, you could easily tell that one home made film was mine, and another was a random kid from the block’s – this was because I loved to film so damn much. On another occasion I dropped the camera to the ground and the shooting tape was damaged, while filming – the result of this was that the first part of the movie was intact, but the second part blurred and jumpy. I had nothing to do with it but it turned out to become my childhood masterpiece.
I came to think about that one when I saw Glen or Glenda. It’s as if the movie about the transvestite Glen accidentaly dropped itself to the ground and became jumpy and shaky, resulting in the distorted parts with Lugosi and all the other, inexplicable moments of weirndess. The various elements of the movie are all pretty senseless, but the movie has it’s own logic and it all make sense within the logic of the movie. This is, by definition, style.
Glen or Glenda opens with Lugosi on the Tales From The Crypt-couch. Funnily enough the first thing you’ll notice with the film is the shadow of the camera panning back. The first second of the movie. The first goof. It really says it all about the technical qualities of the film.
Lugosi holds a horror movie speech about ”the science of the ages” bringing out ”strange horrors” that aren’t strange but merely ”new”, the horror movie thing may be totally out of place but you can pretty much read it as man’s fear of crossdressing. Then he starts to mix a bunch of chemicals, in a ridicilously long shot, saying that ”a life has begun” and laughing, which I guess shows him being God or something – a theory underlined by the following a split screen of an urban big city, with Lugosi looking down on it (like the most b-movieish version imaginable of Murnau’s similar sequence in Faust (1926)) yapping some mumbo jumbo about all the people going places and being ”wrong” because of doing ”right” and vice verca, than bursting out in the wonderful line Pull the strings, dance to what which one is created for, which I must admit is a pretty nice, and poetically nonsenseish, ring-in to this story about one’s personal freedom to choose it’s own sex.
The film then begins, for the second time, with the birth of a child and it’s endless potentials and possibilites – and the suicide of a transvestite, who’s intial freedom, it seems, had it’s limitations in the rough world. This dead guy will become a symbol throughout the movie for all of the sad, rejected transvestites around the world. The fascinated ”inspector” who discovers the body, seeks up a doctor to try to understand the nature of sexual ambuigity, in part to save others from the same fate as the guy who killed himself but also because he always wants to learn new things! The dialog consists of strictly retorical questions and stale comments. The doctor starts to tell the story of Glen, and the film begins for the third time. Subsequently, the doctor will be the voice over for the ”infomercial” which I like to call the main part of the movie. Actually, the very nature of the conversation between the doctor and the inspector is that of an infomercial anyway, this movie is clearly here to learn us about this taboo. This scene with the inspector and the doctor will return as the infomercial pauses, as will the Lugosi segment. As the doctor starts off the story (”only the infinity of the depths of a man’s mind, can really tell the story” he suddenly says, greatly serious, into the camera) Lugosi shows up again in his couch, to praise the doctor’s wisdom and declare the story begun, to thunder and lightning nonetheless!
The infomercial begins with Glen in his drags (Glenda, that is) walking down the street, and a bunch of arguments against sex changes, handed out by the voices of some Joe Schmoe-parodies. A woman says that ”if the creator had wanted us to be born boys, we certainly would have been born boys” and a man says the same about ”girls”, whereafter the V.O proclaims Are we SURE???(”dum dum duuuuu”).
We keep following Glenda, and the V.O keeps talking about the nature of transvestites – we see the unbelievable stale scene between Glen and his wife Barbara (and say what you want about Glen, but the fembot Barbara makes him look like Marlon Brando) where we get some well hidden, traditionally 50’s sex references – and then there’s more infomercial stuff about hard working men having no relaxation given to them in the domestic home, and wearing hats that eventually make them bald, and then the preferable women’s life, with the wonderful opposite. Funny stuff, in particular the sudden sequence with the graceful men in the ”less civilized” parts of the world. It truly has to be seen to be believed.
The story of Glen picks up, when Barbara starts to realise that something is bothering him (he’s actually pre-occupied with the big symbolic object of the movie, Barbara’s angola sweater). When Barbara asks if there’s another woman we hear a big BONG and the roaming buffalos show up, complete with Lugosi’s PULL THE STRINGS, THE STORY MUST BE TOLD. I find this interesting. Is Wood trying to squeeze in a messege about infidelity here too? Who knows.
The infomercial continues, more ramblings about the angst of the transvestites (and about ”Morpheus, the God of sleep”, perhaps that’s who’s Lugosi’s supposed to be) as Glen buys a nightie that he can’t stop fondling, to the cashier’s scared eyes. A wonderful V.O of two steel mill workers follow, discussing transvestites as ”human beings”, one of them dismisses it but one cannot help but hear the agony of his tired ”another day done, thank goodness. See you tomorrow, Jack”. This is nothing but an early, politically queer work of art.
We get to see the sweet memory of the first time Glen proposed to Barbara with some further 50’s sex references:
– That’s a mighty pretty dress you wearing tonight.
– I wear my best to please you
– You know, when… when you look at me, you just tie me in knots
– I’d love to tie you in knots…. aw, I’ll be so happy when these next few months are over
– Some special reason?
– Of course, so you can stop kissing me goodbye at the door every night
The Dream Sequence
Angst comes in a shock of lightning, literary, as Glen fades out on the floor and Lugosi’s voice of doom starts going on about the ”big green green dragon that eats little boys, puppy duck tails and big, fat snails” and in we go into the big dream sequence. Another thing that seems utterly random, but fit perfectly into the movie’s own weird logic
It’s all pretty standard Freudian stuff, with Glenda trying to save Barbara from being crushed under a big log in a distorted version of their living room, but fails and can only do it as Glen, his male incarnation. Another version of this thing follows with a weird marriage in a black studio (apart from two ingeniously placed domestic lamps on the wall), complete with a weird wedding march. Glen and Barbara’s wedding is completed with the foreboding knowledge that The Devil himself provides the couple with the rings! The priest, along with Hornhead, watches as the couple moves into close-up, and the image fades into Lugosi who now seems to be talking straight to the dragon itself; asking if it indeed does eat little boys, puppy duck tails and big, fat snails. It’s not that Lugosi’s not sure himself, it’s a retorical question because afterwards ”puppy duck tails” is ecchoing through Glen’s head by a girl’s voice.
Enter bizarelly cheerful jazz music as Lugosi quietly witness a machismo, bare-brested man whipping a woman in a couch, clearly Wood mocking heterosexual normativity with it’s domestic violence within closed doors. Beautiful women show up and waves seductively, alternatively performing some violent stripteasing, to the left off screen area. Lugosi enjoys it, Glen is horrified – another poke at the horrors of heterosexuality. At one point, one woman is muffled and tied to a pole stretching her arms, while another one ties her free, perhaps a nod to the future realisation that it takes a woman to free Glen from his inner woman, Glenda. Or, perhaps, it suggests that Glenda must be released by female force itself.
Back to the woman on the couch, now crawling with delight in an excessive version of what we saw earlier in the film, when men and women’s comfort within the domestic home was compared. The woman with the ropes show up, tying her hands and legs together and once again gagging her – making her once again robbed of her freedom.
An interesting set of cuts follows. First that of a horny Lugosi, then that of a obviosuly prude and conventional girl combing her hair in a traditional make up mirror. Then we get back to the couch, where the tied up woman has transformed. It seems that once the woman is helpless and tied down the couch, she transforms into a half-naked vixen, eagerly wiggling her body – surely, in 1953, this must be as close to pornography as you can get. As this is an obvious reference to masturbating – that domestic comfort has reached it’s definitive peak – she is asleep in the next cut, where a man with Glen’s physcial appearance, but with the Devil’s beard, appears and tries to rape her. She initially screams in terror, but this scream turns into laughter and they proceed in having some intense foreplay, where his machismo aggression eventually knocks her out. A final cut of Lugosi basically just rising his eyebrows follow – this is the one time, in my opinion, where the movie actually becomes unintentionally funny, but I also get the point: ”How’s it gonna be, girlieboy? That’s a real man for you, I certainly got my rocks off” seems to be written in Lugosi’s face.
We then cut to the third part of the dream sequence. In the distorted version of Glen’s living room, to the sound of further ecchoings telling him to beware, we find him on a stool, afraid to put his feet down, basically tied to his little chair, and shaking out of fear. The girl voice tells him that he is a ”boy, a puppy duck tail” and two ghosts with grim faces appear, presumably Glen’s father and mother. We see a blackboard with childish drawings and squibbling of ”Snips and snails”, ”every thing nice” and ”little girls”. Further people start to appear, seemingly random ones, and finally also The Devil. They all seem to chase him into a corner, where they remain still. The Devil exits the crowd and disappears, the crowd spreads apart and reveal that Glen has turned into Glenda, and the musical score goes from horror to Doris Day as he has finally been redeemed as his true self. The crowd exits and Barabara enters, and gives her his hand, but as Glen is about to take it she transforms into, you guessed it, The Devil.
Basic as it is, it’s still nice to see these Freudian things. Within the dream, The Devil, of the Old Testament but also the Devil of Glen’s heart, arranges so that Glen will turn to Glenda, then Glen’s Freudian Wish-Come-True-Dream is aborted with the Supressed-Truth-Nightmare. Glen’s fear of telling Barbara is still alive.
The Devil pops out of the picture and Barbara pops up in another great shot, she is sitting, in a slightly seductive way, rocking in one of the couches turned on it’s side. This obvious image of the domestic, heterosexual lifestyle literary being turned up-side-down is one of the most memorable images from the movie. She invites him, momentarily switching looks into that of a fancy party dress and flashy hair-style, only to re-appear in her normal clothes in the next cut. As Glen, who is now Glenda, comes forth Barbara laughs him in the face, as his sad expression is dissolved into mocking laughter from all involved, a sequence of the people in the room playing what seems to be a schoolyard child’s game (with all the ancient, instant mockery it reminds you of) and finally The Devil’s laughing face, and once again, the warning of the green dragon. The devastated Glenda falls into the rocking couch as the dream sequence fades out.
We’re back in the real world as Glenda sits down by her mirror and tears off her wig and becomes Glen, as the V.O tells us that ”Glen, Glenda, has made his decision.”
That is, to tell Barbara the truth. Naturally, if you had these kinds of nightmare about the whole thing, I guess you’d be forced to do the same to finally get it out of your system.
When Glen is finished telling his story, we see Barbara doing some weird facial expressions along with some neck excercises, I guess it’s supposed to be the actress’ way of expressing the characters ”divided feelings” or something. This is briefly intercut by Lugosi by the couch, waving his hand to a boy entering on the left, making the boy disappear. Upon this, Barbara says ”I don’t fully understand this, but maybe together we can work it out”, then she slowly gets up, pulls off her angora sweater and in a wider shot hands it over to Glen, as the fanfare reaches a climax. I think this is the perfect example of how this movie works: As poorly as the scene is executed, it has so much honest warmth, and it says so much about real people with the smallest of efforts, that I can’t help but feel genuinely moved by the whole thing. Maybe it is what parents feel when they see their kids putting up worthless plays in school, or for that matter, making fuzzy home videos.
Finale and Epilogue
The movie basically ends there, but a 15 minutes epilogue follows. Another funny thing about this movie, it follows no kind of conventional exposition – any ”normal” filmmaker would have just ended the film there, but not Wood, he needs to continue the film with a segment about the doctor explaining the nature of hermaphrodites, a particular one named Alan/Ann, and the follow-up on Glen and Barbara, with the doctors talking to them about how they expect life to be now that Glen’s secret is revealed. Here is another unexpected technique, that I’m actually not against, it is similar to the afterword of a novel and it’s another example of how this movie is good, despite being bad. It’s also charming beyond words that Wood covers every possible thing about transvetites, and hermaphrodites, the differences between them, even the biological ones (the doctor is litterary standing by a map of the human body!) in a ten minute Q&A-session with the inspector. It’s as if the movie’s over, and now ”is there anybody who has any questions?”
We get to know that Glen had created Glenda due to the lack of affection he recieved as a child – if you missed it, the green dragon that eats boys is obviously a fantasy story from childhood, that still haunts Glen. Now, if Barbara can replace Glenda, Glenda could disappear, if it’s that important to either one of them. This, Wood underlines, makes him different from Alan, who’s life story we rapidly get’s a runthrough of – he was born with the biological structure of both sexes, and decided to change his sex into a woman. We get a full insight in the art of the whole thing, and we even get to know the reality of the matter: It was a painful operation for Alan, and he realised after the sex change that he had to work hard to learn to live as a woman, but rest to sure, Ann ”was indeed meant to be a woman, and now that that the sex change had been completed, Ann was a very happy woman, and a woman who was eager to learn, and now was accepted by society”. This little footnote is yet today wonderfully radical.
The film finally ends with Glen and Barbara with the doctor, Wood once again underlines that Glen (Wood, that is) has no need for a sex change, but one can imagine that Wood nevertheless wanted to bring them out into the light aswell. The conclusion is that Glen and Barbara might be able to kill off Glenda, but Barbara ensures that she loves Glen, and ”will do anything [she] can to make him happy”. As it turns out, the narrator explains to us anyway that Glenda faded from Glen as time went by, and in Barbara, Glen found ”his mother, his little sister, his wife, and his Glenda all in one lovely package”. It’s amazing how such a film that is so ahead of it’s time in sexual minorities, can still be so medieval in it’s portrait of women. But, hey, you can’t have everything.
The movie doesn’t totally leave us with the happy ending, though. The doctor looks us in the eyes and says, ”But what about the other, less fortunate Glens, the world over?”, as we fade into Lugosi in the couch, who repeats the question. Bela sighs and laughs a little, tired as his demonic figure has appropriately disappeared, now that the movie is over.
You guessed it: Snips and snails and puppy duck tails.
This is where this remarkable little movie ends. Is it worthlessly made? Yes. But it is watchable, even enjoyable, and even a case of a movie hitting all the wrong beats, creating a whole new melody. I find the movie very fascinating, as it is great in it’s own right, a work of art that was not meant as a work of art, at least not in the sense it was intended. Wood is not responsible for it’s greatness, the artist is anonymous. On the other hand, Wood’s special style and humanism shines through in every frame, but it is not that alone that makes Glen or Glenda such a great film, and it is not – even though it must be said – because it’s way ahead of it’s time, giving voice to sexual minorities that still today has no voice.
It just so happened to be that Glen or Glenda today is a great movie. The static infomercial style, with the stock footage, the pragmatic V.O and the dead-beat performances, along with the quirky subject matter and the unusual structure of the plot, makes it something that I find totally unique. Yes I would like to see more films done as boldly as Wood did this and many other films. But it’s Glen or Glenda that I can say, for sure, is good despite it’s bad, and not ”so bad it’s good”.
Generally though, Ed Wood was a true auteur, like it or not. Plan 9 From Outer Space, for instance, now there’s a film that in many ways is so bad it’s good, but even that one has a peculiar atmosphere that you can’t find anywhere else. I think we would have to go Wood’s later career – his infamous porn films – to find films that you truly only can laugh and shake your head at.
As for Glen or Glenda, it’s neither good nor bad. I just love the damn thing.
The entire film can be seen on googlevideo here.