Sunday, 3 July 2016

Glen or Glenda (1953)

Originally titled 'I Changed My Sex!' this was Ed Wood's first movie, his first step on a long journey into cinematic history...but not good cinematic history. Its a strange little number that's for sure, a docudrama and semi-autobiographical, with an odd fantasy element bookending the whole thing. That fantasy element comes into play with Bela Lugosi narrating to us, the viewer. His narration seems to revolve around humanity at first, pointing at mans traits, mans pursuit of knowledge, slowly turning to life in general, human personalities, birth, death etc...(almost like an informative film you might see in a natural history museum). The narration then leads into the story that commences with the death of a transvestite, a suicide, the reasons? because this person simply was unable to live their life as they wanted. The man in question was a transvestite who had been locked up in jail on numerous occasions for cross-dressing in public, but this was no act or mental condition, this was who he was, who he wanted to be. With society seemingly unable to understand his position he commits suicide. 

What follows is a curious and rather abstract look into the world of the cross-dressing male and transvestites, all under the guise of the movies plot which solely revolves around the police Inspector trying to understand what a transvestite is and why this person committed suicide. So in affect, this is virtually an educational film about the LGBT community. What its like to live in such a way, how the public perceives you, how your own family and friends perceive you and how to generally try and get by in 1950's America being a cross-dresser.

The funny thing is, this movie is now supposedly known as Ed Wood's worse creation ever, even beating the great 'Plan 9'. Yet despite this dubious honour the film is actually unique, fantastically unique, daring, brave and bold, simply because Ed Wood made a movie about a taboo subject in a time when such a thing could get you killed, worst case scenario. Now naturally judging by the era here, the dialog and general angle could be considered rather offensive and highly condescending, but in all fairness that really should be expected. In all honesty I'm not entirely sure if this is done on purpose by Wood to expose the truths about this American issue in society, or merely a sign of the times, the film simply being a product of the time and people just simply didn't know any better (or didn't want to know any better), the latter is more probable.

The way in which Inspector Warren and investigates the world of cross-dressing is quite hilarious and again...pretty offensive really. I loved how he visits these scientist/doctor types in very posh fully wood panel offices to try and lock down what exactly is meant by cross-dressing. We then get these very darling old shaky black and white movies explaining just what exactly is a transvestite and they live amongst the normal people. This is when we get the tale of Glen or Glenda, a transvestite who seems to have been studied by the doc?? anyway this is Ed Wood in his starring role basically playing himself. The docs case study of Glen or Glenda is in fact the semi-autobiographical part of the movie (about Wood himself, his secret). It is explained how the scientific world calls these men transvestites (a new word at the time), and how they are not actually homosexual as many would expect, but actually heterosexual, they just like to dress up in women's clothes. We then get lots of various flashbacks and segments showcasing how Glen's partner Barbara is suspicious of Glen, why he's acting so oddly, the fact they are due to be married and the pain Glen is suffering about whether he should reveal himself before or after or at all. We see Glen walking down the street in women's clothes, stopping by women's clothes stores and looking in. Glen looking for help from another transvestite, and of course dream sequences which are analogies for Glen's mental anguish on how he thinks he's not up to the task of being a strong male for the eyes of society. The dreams also carry on with some very weird little vignettes including vanilla BDSM, a rape scene, a striptease etc...its all rather peculiar and somehow serve to be an insight into Glen's distressed mind. 

Oddly, in the middle of all these very personal problems and revelations, we end up following another person and the reaction to sex change operations within society. Its almost like a sub plot within the film that goes absolutely nowhere but merely serves to offer up more insight into a slightly separate issue close to Wood and his friends (probably Bunny Breckinridge). Towards the end we are then given yet another little story from the doc of yet another character who was conscripted into the army for WWII but kept his second life a secret until after the war. Said person then managed to achieve having a sex change and basically lived happily ever after, again, not too sure why we are told this. 

All during this time we are shown the odd bit of obscure footage showing Lugosi playing his puppermaster-esque role. A role that was clearly shot purely because Wood adored the macabre and Lugosi performing it, plus it was all for virtually nothing and gave Wood a big A-list name in his movie, win win! The amusing thing is, what is shot is obviously nothing to do with the rest of the movie Wood shoots. The movie is clearly a very personal project about his life, inner demons and inner turmoil, but he's crowbarred in these small sequences with Lugosi which are clearly aimed for a more darker, horror, thriller type flick (his usual stuff). I suppose Lugosi's character is kinda like a God or mystical person that may or may not be controlling mankind or individual lives, maybe a Grim Reaper type character, which is a nice idea but it simply doesn't connect with the story Wood is wanting to tell. The dialog also has nothing much in similar with what unfolds on the screen...'Beware! Beware! Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails, and big fat snails. Take care! beware!'. Seriously...what the hell is that suppose to relate to exactly?? and what does it really mean??

The entire movie feels like its been cobbled together with bits and pieces meant for other films, almost like a series of sketches. In between that you have these odd choices of stock footage which are a staple infamous diet of Wood flicks because they simply don't relate to what's going on on the screen (a herd of wild buffalo?). Yet despite the outrageously (obviously) out of date and slightly derogatory rhetoric going on, the film's heart is basically a good one. Yes transvestites are kinda portrayed like creations of doctor Frankenstein, to be experimented on and observed from within a safe confined space, but that's the era coming through. As weird, quirky, badly acted, bizarre and as cheap as it is, deep down this semi-biopic is pretty much an educational insight into tolerance and sexuality, how people can come to terms with its variations. An intensely personal account of a part of Ed Wood's life, and in that respect it does deserve some admiration and appreciation.