When filmmakers advise aspiring artists to develop a passion for the world of cinema, the image of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut writing for Cahiers du Cinema or the idea of Quentin Tarantino as the friendly neighbourhood video store clerk immediately pops into one’s head. This obsession with cinema isn’t just reserved for the all-time greats; Tim Burton shows its influence on the controversial figure who was voted as the ‘worst director of all time’.
Stylised like a Hollywood noir but far from it, Tim Burton’s magnum opus is a sprawling celebration of one of the most misunderstood visionaries of the 20th century. Starring Johnny Depp as the notorious filmmaker, Ed Wood is a series of visions that document the creative insanity of a flawed philosopher who stumbled in and out of film studios with an optimistic reverence for the possibilities of the future.
While Wood’s works may have been enigmatically impenetrable, Burton’s depiction of the filmmaker’s life is fairly straightforward. It follows Wood’s misadventures as he tries to get funds for one eccentric project after another, cashing in on the brand name of a fading Bela Lugosi (played by the brilliant Martin Landau) who eventually succumbed to intense depression and a deadly addiction to morphine.
Landau captures the final moments of Lugosi’s career with grace, understanding and overwhelming empathy. “I began to respect this guy and pity him,” Landau explained. “I saw the humour in him. This, for me, became a love letter to him, because he never got a chance to get out of that. I got a chance to make a comeback in my career. And I’m giving him one. I’m giving him the last role he never got.”
When Wood was not taking care of his geriatric star, he was busy dreaming. His dreams were populated by various quirky characters, ranging from surreal octopuses to alien entities which have acquired a cult status in later years but were dismissed at the time as whimsical fantasies that were poorly crafted. However, Wood always insisted: “Filmmaking is not about the tiny details, it’s about the big picture.”
Burton explained why he was attracted to Wood and his weird oeuvre: “The films are unusual; I’ve never seen anything like them, the kind of bad poetry and redundancy-saying in, like, five sentences what it would take most normal people one, which I can also relate to. Yet still there is a sincerity to them that is very unusual, and I always found that somewhat touching; it gives them a surreal, weirdly heartfelt feeling.”
Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is the greatest film he has ever made because, in many ways, it is the cinematic ratiocination of his own eccentricities. In Wood, Burton found a source of hope which inspired him to fight for his visions even when nobody else understood them. Although Burton is a more accomplished filmmaker than Wood ever managed to be, it was his courage to dream against all odds that continues to move newer generations of audiences who discover Wood through Burton’s unforgettable paean.