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My Favorite Movies: Glen or Glenda

Favorite movies don’t always overlap with the canon of great movies. Sometimes they’re not even good. I wouldn’t call this selection a “guilty pleasure,” really; instead, it’s a movie made with so little talent and so much enthusiasm that I can spend hours pondering its mysteries. It’s Glen or Glenda (1953), the first feature film directed the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. I don’t remember when I first learned of this film. It’s hidden deep within the recesses of my childhood.

Coming from a family of devoted B movie fans, Ed Wood was of course in our pantheon along with Roger Corman, William Castle, and Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame. I saw Plan 9 at any early age (and many, many times since), as well as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. (I think my father was disconcerted by how many times Martin Landau says “fuck.”) And somewhere along the line, I learned that Wood, the reputed “worst director of all time,” had made a movie about crossdressers. Some years ago, I turned up a DVD copy at the public library; my initial response was a mix of amazement, shock, and some third adjective involving surprise at the film’s low quality. Plenty more viewings would follow.

Glen or Glenda is a curious animal. On the one hand, it follows in the long tradition of classical exploitation filmmaking: movies made starting after WWI that pretend to educate while attempting to titillate. Glenda producer George Weiss had already attached his name to such movies as Test Tube Babies and Racket Girls, the latter of which has been in MST3K, and is probably the least sexy movie about female wrestling. Glen or Glenda was intended follow in this long-standing mold by ostensibly telling the public about sex-change operations while actually providing a teasing glimpse of taboo sexuality. All the trappings are visible, but with Wood at the helm, the film took off in several very strange directions at once.

Initially, Glen or Glenda looks like your usual exploitation movie. It has a topic, its selling point, and it’s even got what Eric Schaefer (writing in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films) calls the “square up”: the title card at the beginning justifying its existence, and warning that “this is a picture of stark realism”—generally code for “There might be some stock footage of a woman giving birth that shows her vagina.” However, for reasons unknown to anyone, the film then jumps to an aged, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi sitting in a room full of skeletons and holding a book. His incomprehensible, long-winded monologue, all delivered in Lugosi’s inimitable Hungarian drawl, sets up the unpredictable, inexplicable structure of what is to come.

As Lugosi’s monologue demonstrates, it’s largely Wood’s script which keeps this from being just another bad exploitation movie. His dialogue is often redundant, usually stilted, and never good, yet grows increasingly strange, as if Wood had been drifting in and out of touch with reality (and the art of writing) while creating it. Similarly, the narrative as a whole makes stabs at being conventional, but consistently misses its mark, as if Wood’s internal compass were driving him toward the avant-garde.

Sure, a story starts up: a transvestite named Patrick commits suicide, a dim-witted police inspector goes to talk with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist launches into the usual “Let me tell you a story…” spiel that frames many exploitation films, Reefer Madness being a well-known example. But no sooner does he attempt to narrate the life of Glen/Glenda than Bela interrupts, signaled (as always) by a flash of stock footage lightning, and begins commenting on the psychiatrist in the vaguest terms possible: “There is no mistaking the thoughts in man’s mind… the story is begun…”

Lugosi’s presence is one of the film’s true mysteries. The obvious answer is that Wood was friends with Lugosi, and wanted to give the ailing veteran some work. Furthermore, Lugosi’s (somewhat faded) star power could potentially lend the movie some slight mainstream credibility; hell, he gets top billing. Even so, why locate him so undecipherably within the movie, intruding on the actual narrative, and generally making the entire film inaccessible to ordinary moviegoers? Both his dialogue and milieu feel drawn from another, even weirder movie, perhaps some uneasy mesh of fatalism, mysticism, and mad science.

Even without Lugosi, Glen or Glenda would be an outlier among exploitation films. Not only does it deviate heavily from its intended sex-change subject matter, but at times it feels uncertain what its subject matter is. Transvestites, or modern man’s inability to overcome destiny (albeit phrased much less coherently)? While most exploitation films let their morality tale plots flow unhindered, the psychiatrist frequently stops his own story to meditate on sexuality and tolerance. At one point, Glen visits his friend Johnny for advice, and Johnny tells his story, within a story, within a story.

All of this is exacerbated by the production values, which are even lower than those in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9. During the psychiatrist’s digressions, the film resorts to merely suggesting the existence of a set: a sign reading “BUS STOP” indicates a bus stop, and a water cooler evokes an office. Wood’s extreme dependence on stock footage also has its consequences: many scenes are reduced to voiceovers underscored by the same few seconds of cars on a freeway, or people on a busy sidewalk, and over a minute and a half of the Alan/Anne story consists of WWII battle footage (this, in a film that’s barely an hour long). Other uses are total non sequiturs, most infamously the buffalo herd stampeding while Lugosi chants, “Pull the string!”

Granted, pointing out badness in an Ed Wood movie may be like shooting poorly executed scenes in a barrel, but I think these examples help show why this movie is worth all the attention I give it. Many of these creative choices weren’t just bad, but unnecessary, and not really justifiable. I’d say this willingness to do the wrong thing, even if the only effect is undercutting traditional narrative cinema, sets Wood apart from the bulk of exploitation craftsmen, who were content merely to film their hackneyed story and maybe inject it with a few minutes of burlesque shows.

Glen or Glenda does have the requisite burlesque padding—inserted, may I add, right in the middle of the movie, with no narrative context whatsoever—but it has so much more going on that the drawn-out stripteases and softcore bondage porn feel like an interruption from the normal outside world of ’50s sleaze, in opposition to the ascended gibberish Wood’s been serving up. This padding is also sandwiched inside Glen/Glenda’s nightmare, the point in the movie where the main narrative (the psychiatrist’s story) intersects with the oneiric horror movie atmosphere of the Lugosi interludes.

This is a movie that takes its subconscious’s noctural soliloquies and puts them on the surface for the audience for the audience to puzzle over. During the nightmare sequence, both the visuals and the sinister, cackling dialogue become completely opaque, and you wonder, if this was transcribed and psychoanalyzed, would some new truth about gender identity be revealed? Or is there no meaning, just intimations toward one? Also, is that guy the devil?

It really is a movie brimming with mysteries, possibly wrapped in additional riddles and enigmas. Its incessantly tangential structure doesn’t help, as the movie repeatedly doubles back on itself, leading the viewer down stories and lines of argument that look eerily familiar. A few salient points can be gleaned from these many approaches, however, and the clearest of these is a plea for tolerance. Ultimately, this is a movie rooted in autobiography and personal interest—Wood’s own transvestism. And it’s remarkably progressive, in its own surreal way, asking (sometimes) for an acceptance of all gender and sexual identities.

Admittedly, the film does make more than a few self-contradictory statements and engages in some obviously false reasoning, but what emerges from the majority of the viewpoints presented is an internal consensus: if a man feels more comfortable in woman’s clothes (or a woman’s body) then those options should be available to him. (Unsurprisingly, female transvestites and transsexuals aren’t even considered.) The film’s one mention of homosexuals comes when the psychiatrist specifies that Glen is not one, but it’s not a condemnation by any means, itself a minor triumph for an era when the word “homosexual” was verboten in mainstream cinema.

Of course, Glen or Glenda doesn’t even come close to being a systematic or intelligible defense of transvestism, but that’s hardly its purpose. Instead, I see it as Ed Wood personally expressing, under the only circumstances he could, his feelings about crossdressing and gender identity. And amid a flurry of hysterical expressionism, he manages to say that people should accept ideas even if they seem strange at first. If Ed Wood had had a shred of talent or artistry, he might’ve been Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger. But he didn’t, thank God, and thus he was Ed Wood. With its indecisively multifaceted narrative, its manic mix of genres and messages, and its wildly idiosyncratic take on human sexuality, Glen or Glenda is one of my favorite movies.

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Filed under Cinema, Media, Sexuality

Thought smorgasbord

It’s Friday night. Earlier things felt a little grim. Maybe because I spent my time at work playing stupid online quizzes instead of taking in works of art. Because hey, all I had to do was sit back, finish a movie, listen to music, and voila: the feeling went away. And now it’s midnight and everything’s peachy and beautiful. And I’m going to sneeze. Achoo. There. I sneezed. Sneezes are funny. Some people I have known go “A-too” in a squeakily adorable way. I go, “Aschplsm!” or some comparable noise and eject mucus at some ridiculous speed from my nose. And as we all know, there’s that old tradition: a sneeze is your soul trying to escape. Which is a scary thought. Hence the “Gesundheit!” and “God bless you!” I have fun saying “Bless you!” to people with whom I would not otherwise normally converse, and hearing them go, “Thank you,” in response. It’s a pleasant, socially acceptable interaction. Ain’t just that grand. I’m going to toss out a guess that the tradition (accompanying belief) maybe comes from medieval Europe, because they tended to come up with crazy traditions like that. After some brief research (typing “sneeze soul escape” into Google; ain’t the Internet also grand?), I have found that, as suspected, Cecil Adams (the self-declared “World’s Smartest Human”) has the answer – or at least, an answer. He doesn’t get too specific on the escaping-soul thing. But as I suspected, there is a link between the Black Death and “bless you.” But still, with the idea of the soul escaping – which, as the article hints at, may be in my mind largely because of the Simpsons – that just strikes me as weird. Why would your soul attempt to escape? What magical forces are holding it back, which can be thwarted with something as casual and frequent as a single sneeze? Also, if you read to the end of the article, you’ll see more examples of what I was discussing the other day, stupid traditions.

Those stupid traditions reminded me of back when I was in elementary school. We were trying to come up with rhymes to act as superstitions. And I think… some of them involved finding a penny on the ground. And it was like, “If it’s on heads…”, oh, probably “you’ll soon be dead.” And I recall saying, “If it’s on tails, you’ll be eaten by a whale.” Meaning two things: 1) at age 8 or so, I had poor poetic abilities and 2) those two rhymes, put together, make kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Which I think I realized, even at that young age. The conclusion? The superstitions little kids come up with can be dumb. And who ever forgets “step on a crack, make your brother’s break your mother’s back”? Jesus Christ, that must’ve led hundreds, thousands of kids into years of therapy and struggling with OCD! I guess the main issue is whether the kid’s the kind who takes everything to heart, takes it all dead serious (i.e., little me) or the kind who shrugs everything off and just goes on with his/her cute little 3rd grade life. I don’t remember too much of my early life, but sometimes I do look back and smile at disbelief.

And OK, I was pondering this the other day: next year, my old high school will welcome the class of 2014. This means they were born around 1996-97. I.e., they experienced birth around the same time I was coming up with dumb new superstitions for myself. (Pssst – for a great account of childhood OCD, read Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home. I just turned in a paper about it [“Sexual Shame and Identity in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home“] this morning as part of my writing portfolio. Great, engrossing graphic novel.) Um, where was I? Oh, right, the fact that the gap is steadily increasing between my age and the age of those who are very young. Time passes in strange ways. And it passes quickly. Though sometimes too slowly (for example, this fucking month). I once heard a quote, maybe apocryphal, but amusing enough: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” Attributed, of course, to Albert Einstein. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with the physics kind of relativity, but it nicely sums up the more personal, day-to-day type: time flies when you’re having fun (also, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” That was my quote in the yearbook my senior year of high school; I kid you not). And time slows to a crawl when you’re suffering. Or bored. Or glancing at the clock every few minutes during your two-hour class hoping to get out so you can go eat and then relax. To give a completely hypothetical example. So, what’s my point here? Am I just repeating a commonly known, intuitively obvious fact? For the most part, yes. But… I don’t know. Perception of time is a strange and interesting thing. I wouldn’t mind getting sealed into a John Lilly-style isolation tank someday to see how fast or slow time seems to pass, just so long as I didn’t regress into a feral monkey-thing like in Altered States. That was a pretty disappointing movie. I’m willing to give Ken Russell another chance or two – and Tommy, at least, did have fittingly astounding visuals – but still. Where was I? Oh, yeah, time. According to David Bowie, it “flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor,” which are certainly fun lyrics, but don’t really offer me any clues. (Bowie also observes that it “may change [him], but [he] can’t trace [it]”.) Call me ridiculous – go on, do it! – but I have enjoyed substituting quoted words with other words in brackets since, oh, 11th grade or so. When I realized that I could do it, when I put 2 and 2 together and realized that just like all the quotes with bracketed words I’d read in books, I too could bracket words in quotes – I felt like a whole new world of writing was opening up to me. And I still get a childish thrill out of doing it, the same thrill that maybe someone would get from being able to supervise a controlled demolition, or sit in the president’s chair, or some other nonsensical comparison. Maybe it’s because it feels like a professional writer sort of thing. I’m not sure. But even now, even probably in my Fun Home essay, it’s as fun as, oh, 1/2 barrels of monkeys. Maybe 2/3 barrels if it’s a particularly masterful brackets-in-quotes example?

So the moral of the story is, I learned in quiz bowl a week or two ago that a certain group of Native American supposedly comprehended time differently than we do, and this was taken as evidence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a complicated (and largely discredited) linguistics theory I both don’t want to and can’t explain, because I don’t really understand it. I think I first learned of Sapir-Whorf on the Wikipedia page about Newspeak from 1984. And I think I’ve related it to a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein that hung above the English section of my old high school: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I guess I have always found this interesting – how language can affect, well, what we talk about, and how we talk about it. Like with reclaiming words, something I recently suggested doing with “lover.” I refer to Ashley as “lover” all the fucking time. But generally it’s seen as “someone who fucks someone else.” Hence, even though “love” is right there in the word, the two of us are doubted when we use “lover” with regard to our relationship. I remember once I had an experience where I was walking randomly along a sidewalk in Excelsior, Minnesota, when a car drove by and I heard three simultaneous insults. For your benefit, I later drew a little comic about it.

An incident

I don’t think I’ve ever felt truly hurt by insults yelled from a moving vehicle. And when those insults have been homophobic, I practically perk up with pride. A tear comes to my eye. “Some ignorant redneck just called me a homo!” I cry in glee. “God, I must be doing something right!” And when the insults are racist, and even directed at races of which I am not visibly a member? Same reaction. What I guess just confuses me is the idea of these moronic teenagers driving around Minnesotan suburbs (after all, I had an almost identical experience while walking to our apartment in Mound) screaming homophobic and racist slurs out of car windows. It’s just a “What the fuck?” moment. Kind of like just now, when I heard some guy yelling insults at a girl, who was also yelling, before I heard slamming of doors, loud crashes, and angry, running footsteps. All this in a dormitory where hundreds of students live, at 1 in the morning. Come to think of it, I have a lot of “what the fuck?” moments. It just puzzles me to no end, trying to figure out how it is that people think some things are acceptable. (Of course, when you get into the serial killer or war crimes area… Hannah Arendt can figure that out if she wants, because I just fucking give up.)

Since I’ve mentioned my old high school a couple times, you know what pissed me off to no end a couple years ago? That moronic ritual where teenagers get the dumbfuck idea in their heads to throw toilet paper all over someone’s lawn. Yeah, you motherfuckers, that’s a real good plan. And then fight violently with other people who are also throwing toilet paper. Um, is there something wrong with me? That I can’t see how that’s so fun? Why, pardon me, I guess I was never educated in the divine pleasures of wrecking shit and making obnoxious messes. Yes, I’m overreacting, and yes, this was a couple years ago, but moronic little fuckers are still driving around, eager to throw toilet paper and call people “fucking fags.” As time goes by, I’m getting more and more curious about somehow getting involved in education or mentoring or something to prevent very small children from becoming very stupid, slightly larger children. It’s just depressing to imagine. I also want to get them to watch movies that don’t suck. Because it’s also depressing to imagine kids growing up without ever hearing the words “Asa nisi masa,” and thinking that “Rosebud” is a sled instead of a clitoris. (Long story.)

And so I’m getting as well-educated in film as I can, to maybe better educate others. Is that a pretentious or egotistical way of thinking? Oh, I’m so sophisticated and intelligent, only I can tell you what to like. But that’s not how it is. At least, I hope it’s not. I’m often terrified of being too ego-driven. I shudder at the thought of it. It’s nice to not hate yourself, but don’t go overboard. Speaking of the ego, did you know there was a Marvel supervillain named Ego, the Living Planet? Guess what it was. Just guess. That reminds me of Krakoa, who I think was a sentient island – and of course one of my favorite superheroes (going by a loose definition of the word), Danny the Street from Doom Patrol. Who was a street. Who could move anywhere on earth where there were streets. Did I mention he was a transvestite, and communicated by rearranging letters in buildings, uh, along himself? Moral of the story? I want to be selfless and learn that I may do good for others. Also, Danny the Stree is awesome. You know who selflessly does good for others? Danny the Street. And speaking of transvestites, transvestitism is awesome. But that’s another blog write there. (To be written shortly after I receive some personal experience in the topic; start the countdown!) I’m sick of gender-specific clothing anyway. It’s frequently just an enabler of gender-biased behavior in the first place. I refuse to be insulted anymore by people mistaking my gender. I keep finding myself comparing mankind to the Eloi and the Morlocks from The Time Machine, but seriously: someday we’ll just be like the Eloi, with male and female all wearing loose, comfy robes. And Yvette Mimieux will probably be involved somehow.

[I ended up titling this blog using a long Swedish word that’s hard to spell. In Norwegian, we use unique funny letters instead of just adding umlauts to everything. But the Swedes are cool. Or the Bergmans (Ingrid and Ingmar) are at least. Whatever.]

Speaking of shedding gender-specific clothes, the other day at body positivity group I was briefly involved in a discussion about nudist colonies. And someone mentioned the idea of a nudist colony where nudity is optional – where, if you feel like it, you can wear just a shirt, or a dress, or just shoes, or whatever! I like that a lot more than dogmatically requiring everyone to be naked as a jaybird (a beautifully quaint phrase) 24/7. It reminds me of that quote I find myself coming back to time and time again, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936): “Back to nature! Clothes are a blight on civilization! Back to nature!” Even if this was said by a drunken, pants-less man feeding donuts to a horse. That’s not the point. It’s the thought that counts, or some similarly meaningless cliche. My point? Clothes suck. I’m okay with wearing them most of the time, provided I don’t have to put any thought into them or wear anything uncomfortable, but by the time clothes become strictly ritualized, codified, and their codification develops into an industry itself – that’s just scary. Scarier than the dream I had recently where I don’t remember what happened in it, but when I woke up I had to check to make sure my teeth were all there. I really had better not get started on fashion. It’s late and there are movies to watch and a lover to be with.

So I hope I gave you a little food for thought. And after all, “If movies be the food of thought, watch on…”

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Filed under Body, Personal