Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda: The Accidental Avant-Garde

01/22/2010 1:19 PM |

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Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda plays this afternoon and Sunday evening at MoMA, as part of a film series running parallel to their Tim Burton exhibition.

You can throw a rock in the air and hit someone arguing about what’s art and what’s not—what’s high and low, or good trash and bad trash—but anyone that follows the discussion to the end of its rope will reach Edward D. Wood Jr.’s notorious Glen or Glenda (1953), one of the most uproariously *wrong* films ever made and yet a close if disreputable cousin, with its irrational resort to found footage and its deranged quasi-doc-ness and its canned celebration of otherness, to the best works of Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner, and Jack Smith.Throw in John Waters, Todd Haynes and Craig Baldwin—Wood predated all but Cornell, and there’s an argument to be made that a good deal of modern pop culture, from melodramatic retro-cool to psychotronica to post-punk camp mania, wouldn’t have happened the same without him. Glenda is many things to every viewer: the “personal” exploitation ditty passionately assembled by the most illiterate cineaste the medium’s ever known, one of the greatest unintentionial sidesplitters (rivaled only by Wood’s other films), and a lately recognized pioneering paean to transvestism and fetishism—all this in just over an hour of auteurial fuggups, slippages and self-exposures. Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood would’ve been impossible without Glenda’s autobiographical frisson, of course, but Wood’s diaristic impulses, groundbreaking though they were, are only the now-fashionable angora part of this derelict’s underground ensemble. No, it’s the film’s junkyard-sculpture form and conflicting layers that make your eyelids twitch today; in addition to the myriad of things he’s already been labeled since he drank himself to death on a friend’s couch and got himself rediscovered a few decades later, Wood might just have been a great American primitive, the world’s most famous accidental avant-gardist.