Sunday, August 18, 2019


At the time of writing, a week has passed since the animated special “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” was released on Netflix. To those that used their smartphones to whine and wail online about their childhood being ruined yet again, when the show revealed that the cane toad Ralph Bighead, creator of the show-within-a-show “The Fatheads,” had transitioned into Rachel in the intervening twenty years, they couldn’t have done that without the work of a transgender woman: Sophie Wilson, of Acorn Computers, developed the instruction set for the first ARM processor, and worked with colleague Steve Furber to produce the first chip. Be more like Rachel, Sophie and Steve.

I was happy to be reminded about the Dada-like nature of Rachel Bighead’s show: The Fatheads themselves, two green creatures hitting themselves over the head with parking meters, or being showered with pineapples, the smarmy narrator asking what will happen next, the line “did you eat another solicitor,” and a laugh track consisting of just one person, laughing really hard. However, what came to mind later was that one time someone tried to make a film that tried to earnestly portray the struggle of transgender people, but came across as more randomly batshit than an episode of “The Fatheads.”

“Snips and snails and puppy dog tails...”

Until "Manos: The Hands of Fate" was rediscovered, the worst film of all time was generally agreed to be "Glen or Glenda," written and directed by Edward D. Wood Jr, the “auteur” behind disaster works like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959) and “Bride of the Monster” (1955). In “Glen or Glenda,” Wood makes an earnest, but bizarrely explained, plea for understanding of transvestites, in a film half-disguised as an exploitation of the recent story of Christine Jorgensen, a soldier that underwent sex reassignment surgery in Europe.

As told in the Tim Burton / Johnny Depp biopic "Ed Wood" (1994), the film producer George Weiss, who in 1948 produced an exploitation film titled “Test Tube Babies” (also known as “Blessed Are They,” and “Sins of Love”) simply wanted to exploit the story, but after Jorgensen turned down offers from Weiss to star in a film, Wood used his own transvestism to persuade Weiss he was the best qualified to make the film – inevitably, Wood stars in the title role, under the pseudonym Lyle Talbot. 

“Glen or Glenda” a schizophrenic mix of melodrama and the supernatural, made in just four days, which is mostly about transvestism, with a transgender story stuck on the end, “Alan or Anne,” to meet the original request for a sex-change film. A dream sequence in which Glen has to decide to tell his fiancée about "Glenda," which is really all the plot is for the film, features both clamouring hands and a literal Devil. Some bondage scenes, unwittingly making their own commentary on gender roles, were added by the producer, mostly to pad out the running time to just over an hour. Throw in lots of asides about opinions on gender from different times, or people talking over stock footage, and pepper it further with Bela Lugosi, a perennial staple of Wood’s films, talking about being beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep, because he eats little boys.

"Glen or Glenda" comes from a man whose wish to tell a story is blighted by his actual ability, but succeeding in grabbing your attention, as portrayed by Depp in the biopic. But, when taken seriously, the film succeeds in attempting to discuss a complicated issue, even if it then talks about how tight hats make men bald, providing a motive for making women's clothing fit better for women, or something like that. What this film says turns out to be amazing. Bela Lugosi, as "The Scientist," plays an over-arching narrator, albeit one who sounds like he is in the wrong film: 

"Man's constant groping of things unknown, drawing from the endless reaches of time, brings to light many startling things. Startling because they seem new...sudden...but most are not new to the signs of the ages. A begun! People...all going somewhere. All with their own thoughts, their own ideas. All with their own personalities. One is wrong because he does is right because he does wrong. Pull the strings! Dance to that, which one is created for. A new day is begun. A new life is begun. A ended." 

Just like Glen has to cut through prejudice, you have to give "Glen or Glenda" the proper attention to see past the surface, and find something unexpectedly brilliant and brave. Just as Glen's sister said his brother's transvestism is hard to believe but, her co-worker tells her that it may just be hard for you to accept - it doesn't mean you choose not to understand. For the good of everyone, let's simply agree with Glen's fiancée, because it is the most human thing to say - "I don't fully understand this, but maybe together we can work it out."

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