If an auteur's body of work is defined by the outliers — the films that seem to bend the strictures of a director's identifiable style while still unmistakably bearing his signature — then the must-see of LACMA's upcoming Tim Burton film series, pegged to the museum's massive exhibit of the filmmaker's nonmoving work, is Saturday's screening of Ed Wood, which Burton will introduce.
The director of D-grade 1950s genre films such as Bride of the Atom and the sci-fi flick oft branded the worst film of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Edward D. Wood Jr. sold himself as an acting/writing/directing/producing quadruple threat. In Glen or Glenda?, Wood, an angora-fetishizing cross-dresser, starred as the titular transvestite. He aspired to the boy-wonder formalism of Orson Welles, but his haphazard snapshot style and attraction to winsome freaks had more in common with street photographer Weegee.
Stylistically finding the common ground between the two, Burton playfully adopts Wood's questionable gift for what could most graciously be called spontaneity. Handheld camera work alternates with shots at extreme oblique angles and gorgeous wide-screen compositions, while an actress's hairstyle might change from cut to cut within a single scene, and the casually chatty dialogue erupts with non sequiturs. "No, no liquids!" insists Juliet Landau's would-be starlet in the midst of a conversation at a bar. "I'm terribly allergic to all of them!"
It's a fever dream of filmmaking on the outer margins of the industry, a love letter to a hedonistic subculture close enough to Hollywood to absorb its failed castoffs and wannabes, including a washed-up Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) and sexpot TV horror hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie). Burton milks their frustrations — and fetishes — for both good-natured laughs and light poignancy.
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There's a palpable joy to his pastiche, never more evident than in Ed Wood's many scenes of Wood and his ragtag crew of misfits more or less hanging out. (Wood's just-out-of-the-transvestite-closet striptease in a slaughterhouse is a particular delight.)
A flop on its release in 1994, Ed Wood is nonetheless the only Burton film to win a non-technical Oscar, for Landau's prosthetic-enhanced supporting turn as Lugosi. It represents a shift in Burton's oeuvre from fables grounded by personalities in iconic roles (Paul Reubens in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Depp in Edward Scissorhands, Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice and Batman) to high-concept fantasies marked by Burton's tendency toward visual excess and an extremely tenuous relationship to recognizable human life.
It's working for him, in some sense — Burton's last film, the un-watchably scattered Alice in Wonderland, was 2010's biggest live-action box office hit, and the latest in a long line of films that seem most resonant as corporate synergistic events (somehow Sweeney Todd never managed to spawn action figures before Burton got to it). A film about delusional ecstasy in the seedy underbelly of the commercial film industry, Ed Wood teases what maybe could have been had Burton been a less adept businessman.
THE FANTASTICAL WORLDS OF TIM BURTON, featuring Ed Wood | Sat., May 28, 7 p.m. | Bing Theater at LACMA | lacma.org