I recently watched a couple of movies about artists. One, The Hours, revolves around Virginia Woolf. The story takes place at three points in time, interspliced with one another: 1923, with Woolf cooped up in England's suburbs, ordered there by her doctors to fight her madness, as she writes Mrs. Dalloway and longs to escape; 1951, with an unstable housewife reading Mrs. Dalloway; and 2001, with a publisher planning a party for her AIDS-stricken ex-lover who's won a poetry prize, feeling all the while that she's unraveling (like Mrs. Dalloway). The stories are full of rhymes: to be flatfooted about it, everyone's going crazy, everyone's suicidal, and everyone's gay. And it all adds up to... not much that I could see. It's a meditation on a certain set of themes, but Mrs. Dalloway was already a meditation on those themes, and The Hours adds nothing more than a pointless postmodernist spin. (Well, it also adds an excruciating score by Philip Glass, whom I've liked elsewhere but definitely not here. Oh, and one of the most annoying performances I've seen in a while, by the kid who plays "Bug.")
Much deeper, and more entertaining, is Ed Wood, an old favorite I finally got around to watching again. Virginia Woolf is a giant of modernist literature; Ed Wood is a giant of spectacularly bad 50s movies, so in this case the recontextualization of the artist's work actually does have more to say than the original work itself. The question it poses is a really intriguing one, to wit: countless stories have been written about artists, about the need to create, about the quest to defend personal vision from the ravages of the marketplace, and so forth... but what happens to the story of the heroic artist when the art is crap? Ed Wood overcame immense odds and made his mark in Hollywood, managing to get several features made seemingly on drive and determination alone — but is this something to applaud when those features are appallingly incompetent?
Here the film's juxtaposition of the work with the circumstances of its creation pays off handsomely. Unlike in The Hours, where we learn that, guess what, Mrs. Dalloway actually reflected the author's own experience — who'd've thought? — in Ed Wood this added context doesn't just repeat or amplify the material in question, it changes everything. Bela Lugosi's collaboration and friendship with Wood, we learn, may have been responsible for some real cinematic stinkbombs, but they also added at least a little dignity to the end of the fallen star's life. Take the "race of atomic supermen" speech from Bride of the Monster. It's a ludicrous piece of dialogue. The filmmakers behind Ed Wood are well aware that it's a ludicrous piece of dialogue. But coming out of the mouth of Bela Lugosi in 1956 — knowing what the film has shown us about where Bela Lugosi's life was in 1956 — it becomes seriously moving. Anyone can make a great novel seem deep. It takes talent to do the same for something like an Ed Wood screenplay. (Which explains why Wood himself couldn't do it.)
(I love this sort of thing in other arenas, too — part of the appeal of superhero comics for me is the fact that nowadays it's an industry full of some really great writers — Christopher Priest, for one, is my favorite writer in any medium — taking pulp banged out for children forty years ago and spinning it into first-rate literature for adults. The whole reason I wrote "Dark Marrissa" in 1996 was that writing a good story based on the work of Usenet's own Ed Wood, Stephen Ratliff, was a challenge I couldn't resist.)
Ed Wood isn't perfect — more than a few of the jokes fall flat, and it takes a while to get used to the mannered performances: Johnny Depp's title character in particular never quite feels real. On the other hand, Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi is still one of the best performances I've ever been privileged to watch, and Juliet Landau is wonderful as Loretta King in the role that landed her Drusilla — itself sufficient reason to be grateful for this film. Also great are Patricia Arquette as a sweet young woman unwilling to project her voice much beyond her own mouth, and Lisa Marie as jaded, how-did-I-come-to-this Vampira... George Steele pulls off the feat of actually making a credible Tor Johnson... indeed, by the end, a lot of the fun of the film comes from the opportunity to spend time with this gang of lovable freaks. To the extent that Ed Wood answers its implicit question, it seems to argue that it was worth making these movies, not for the finished product (which is terrible) but because the process of making them brought these people together and made their lives a little more bearable. They may have fallen as far as one can possibly fall from artistic glory, but as they say, the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill one's heart. Especially when the struggle involves grave robbers from outer space.