“Let us not mince words. The marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful.”
-Surrealist Manifesto (1924)
“Badness appreciation is the most acquired taste, the most refined”
-fan of paracinema (qtd. in Sconce 109)
In “Trashing the Academy: Taste, excess and an emerging politics of cinematic style” (1995), one of the first attempts to theorize cult cinema within the academy, Jeffrey Sconce defines “paracinema” as “less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus. In short, the explicit manifesto of paracinematic culture is to valorize all forms of cinematic ‘trash’, whether such films have been either explicitly rejected or simply ignored by legitimate film culture” (101). In an earlier post I discussed how I would be using precisely these kinds of texts in my Trash Cinema course.
This week my students watched and discussed one prime example of paracinema, Edward D. Wood Jr’s Glen or Glenda? (1953). Glen or Glenda (which has also played under the more sensational title I Changed My Sex) originated as a documentary about the life of one of the first highly publicized transsexuals, Christine Jorgensen, but the film quickly morphed into an odd, often dreamlike self portrait of the director, who was fond of wearing women’s clothing (particularly angora sweaters).
When watching Glen or Glenda? it is vital to know such extratextual details. For example, this knowledge explains Wood’s passionate defense of crossdressing (at a time when men who crossdressed in public were frequently arrested and/or beaten) and his frequent, emphatic claims that the film’s crossdressing protagonist, Glen (played by the director) is NOT a homosexual. At these moments the film becomes Wood’s plea to be understood and embraced by a society bent on rigid gender codification. Indeed, as Sconce points out, paracinematic texts often push the viewer beyond the boundaries of the cinematic frame, demanding that we account for the profilmic.
The moments that pull the viewer out of the fantasy of the text, pointing them to extratextual, are often identified by fans of paracinema as instances of “badtruth”: “As with the [Surrealist concept of the] marvellous, the badtruth as a nodal point of paracinematic style, provides a defamiliarized view of the world by merging the transcendentally weird and the catastrophically awful” (Sconce 112). For example, Bela Lugosi’s role in Glen or Glenda? — a mix between a God figure, a mad scientist, and Glen’s subconscious — is strange and distracting and therefore a primary example of “badtruth.”
The above scene only becomes tolerable (and even pleasurable) when we know that Lugosi was, at this point in his career, a fallen star, desperate for money to support his debilitating morphine addiction. Wood was a huge Lugosi fan and could not believe his luck when Lugosi agreed to star in his film. Despite Wood’s enthusiasm (and one can never doubt Wood’s enthusiasm), he clearly had difficulty fully integrating Lugosi into his crossdressing/sex change film. One of my students even asked “Did Lugosi even know that he was making a film?” These moments of badtruth, when Lugosi plods through nonsensical lines like “Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys,” point us to the extratextual, and the extratextual, in turn, contextualizes, even rationalizes, the film’s badtruth. This is the circuitous logic of paracinema and one of its primary pleasures.
The obviously doctored newspaper: a great moment of badtruth in Glen or Glenda?
Unfortunately, the majority of my students did not see it this way. They described the movie as “too long” (the version we watched was just 68 minutes long), “exhausting” and “annoying.” Our discussion of what many cinephiles consider to be the “worst film ever made” naturally led us back to The Room, with my students claiming that the latter was far more enjoyable. As one student put it “Both films were poorly made but at least The Room didn’t preach to the viewer.” Apparently, badtruth on its own is pleasurable, but badtruth mixed with a political agenda is not.
Despite my students’ less than enthusiastic response to Glen or Glenda?, I will continue to screen it in the classroom (it holds a regular spot on my Introduction to Film Studies syllabus). As a fan of paracinema I delight in the way the film constantly pushes me past the frame, to think about its production history, its stars and its now iconic director. But maybe Tim Burton and I are alone on this one? At least I’m in good company…
Scene from Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)