I Woke Up Early The Day I Died

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Ed Wood Lives
only September, but I’m more than willing to call I Woke Up Early The Day
I Died the weirdest American independent film of the year–and in some ways
the most original. Based on an unproduced screenplay by Edward D. Wood Jr.,
it plays like a painstaking reconstruction of a feature film lost for decades
and decayed to the point of inscrutability. But it’s not an old film. It
was made last year in Los Angeles with a topnotch cast of bicoastal hipster
actors, and it looks great–at once bright and grungy, with a spiky, punkish
vibe reminiscent of Alex Cox’s Repo Man. The director, Aris Iliopulos,
hasn’t just made a movie; he’s made an artifact. Amazingly, if you’re
in an accepting frame of mind, it works.

Billy Zane plays The Thief,
the film’s antihero, who gets embroiled in a plot that’s like a film
noir rewritten as an old-time movie serial. In the film’s opening moments,
he busts out of an asylum while dressed as a nurse (from behind, with his broad
shoulders and narrow hips, he could be a crossdressing linebacker), then goes
on a bizarre odyssey through Los Angeles, boosting cars, evading cops and otherwise
getting into trouble. After robbing a bank, he hides out in a cemetery, witnessing
a funeral in the process, then accidentally allows the stolen cash to end up
in a coffin at a mausoleum, intending to stop by later to reclaim it. But when
he comes back, someone stole the cash–most likely one of the mourners,
whose ranks include caretaker Ron Perlman, preacher Will Patton, undertaker
Carel Struycken (the giant in Twin Peaks and Lurch in the Addams Family
films), assistant undertaker Max Perlich and go-go dancer Sandra Bernhard. The
Thief obtains a list of the mourners and confronts them one by one over the
course of the next few days, invariably killing them when they fail to produce
the loot. And that’s pretty much all there is to the movie, plotwise.

Of course, plot never mattered
to Ed Wood, and he was never adept at articulating what did matter because he
didn’t have much talent as a filmmaker. He has often been called the worst
director of all time; the Voice’s J. Hoberman aptly described him
as a creator of "anti-masterpieces." But it’s worth pointing
out that while I Woke Up Early hews closely to Wood’s unproduced
script, it’s an inventive and intensely watchable movie, which suggests
that perhaps Wood’s random, free-associative, almost childlike sense of
what to put into a story was less of a handicap than his inability to hook up
with genuinely talented actors or figure out where to put the camera and how
to use editing to further the narrative. In other words, mediocre-to-talented
directors need good scripts, otherwise their films tend to stink, but for the
handful of truly great film artists, the issue is nearly moot. If Wood had been
a great director–a director of genius, or at least considerable talent–the
ludicrous randomness of his scripts wouldn’t have mattered a bit. When
you think about it, the screenplays to most films by Val Lewton, Brian De Palma
and, most notoriously, David Lynch don’t make any goddamn sense, either;
if you looked at the stories on paper, as narrative-plus-dialogue blueprints
for movies, you might think they were written by complete morons. (I’d
love to hear someone try to convince me that the scripts to Wild At Heart
and Lost Highway are better than the ones for Plan 9 and Glen
Or Glenda

Iliopulos is no genius,
but he has loads of talent–and because the movie is short and fast and
tightly focused, flourishes that could come off as grotesque and indulgent seem
playful. The action occurs in a universe that’s part old, part new, all
nightmare. The streets and many of the costumes are modern, and the actors are
all familiar from recent films and tv shows, yet other elements–like the
1940s cars in some scenes, and the bank that’s robbed by The Thief, which
is laid out like something in a Western–are fake-retro. (The scratchy,
faded stock footage Iliopulos cuts to during transitions, and sometime in the
middle of scenes, really is retro.) To underline the idea of the movie
as a "found" or "reconstructed" artifact, the director often
freezes the action and superimposes screenplay directions over the image ("INT.–SANITARIUM–DUSK").

Except for music (mostly
speed metal and imitation punk and a couple of oddball picks, like that disco
version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra") and a few post-dubbed audio
effects, the soundtrack is threadbare, and some of the action is speeded up,
filmed with a herky-jerky camera or both. It’s like a silent movie made
by Martians.

The performances further
the extraterrestrial silent film aura. Iliopulos and his improv-talented cast
go wild with the material, feeding an exhibitionist, expressionist jones that’s
rarely satiated by modern Hollywood; yet they never do anything that dishonors
the Ed Wood vibe–a vibe that combines innocence, showmanship, shame and
a nearly paralyzing fear of depravity.

I was especially impressed
by Zane, a bold, crazy, polymorphous actor who still hasn’t gotten the
acclaim he deserves. He took a lot of heat for his performance in Titanic,
but it’s worth noting that at the time, that film was beloved by much of
the viewing public; average viewers and empathetic critics deeply resented elements
that broke James Cameron’s spell and reminded them they were watching a
movie–and it just so happened that Zane’s glowering, one-dimensional
performance as the greedy rat bastard fiance–Howard Hughes plus Dick Dastardly–was
the flashpoint of their anger. But with a little distance from Titanic,
it’s possible to appreciate Zane’s performance as a sneaky, funny
commentary on the film’s bludgeoningly old-fashioned methods. His work
recalled pre-sound movie serials because the movie did. I suspect that Zane,
as an honest and smart actor, simply couldn’t help telling the truth about
Titanic, and Cameron was either too dense or to preoccupied to see what
Zane was up to.

I Woke Up Early is
just as artificial and old fashioned, but the whole movie is a work of excavation
and commentary; as a result, though Zane’s performance is much wilder than
in Titanic, or any anything else he’s done, it’s in context,
so it makes a peculiar kind of sense. What he does here is unique, maybe a little
reckless. On the set and on the spot, he is physically and facially recreating
the kinds of performances we see in old movies that have been decayed and distorted
by age and improper care. He has a strange, jittery walk, slightly sidelong,
almost apelike; his eyes are wild, the eyes of a silent film actor who never
unlearned stage habits, or perhaps a drug addict craving his next fix. It’s
the Method plus Kabuki. The filmmaker is on board with Zane’s wild-assed
creativity; you can tell by the way the actor has been lit, framed and made
up. The costume department has fitted him with one of the strangest hairpieces
I’ve ever seen–it’s like somebody scalped the lead singer of
Prodigy, fried his hair in a pan with very little butter and plopped it atop
Zane’s skull while it was still hot. Zane acts like a man whose brain is
on fire.


Bedrooms and Hallways

directed by Rose Troche

10 Years After
less said about Rose Troche’s long-awaited follow-up to Go Fish, the better.
Set in upper middle-class, yuppified London, this ensemble comedy about romance
(straight and gay) has a dated script and direction that’s not clever or
interesting. Go Fish was interesting to look at; it seemed to have been made
with a bit of visual sense, and the low budget, coupled with the black-and-white
16-mm photography, made you inclined to give it bonus points.

Bedrooms looks terrific–the
warm color photography, by Ashley Rowe, is some of the best I’ve seen in
a romantic comedy. But Troche has a cliched idea of what constitutes direction:
She moves the camera around and around people during otherwise ordinary group
conversations to make them more "exciting"; she moves the camera slowly
from one vantage point to another to make the scene more "engrossing";
she zooms in very slowly on actors during dramatic monologues to achieve "intensity."
There are a couple of long, long Steadicam shots, not because they enhance or
comment on the nature of the scene, but because young directors now feel they
have to do long, long Steadicam shots to prove they’re real directors.

All the wasted motion can’t
distract from the fact that while Bedrooms And Hallways would have seemed
fresh and necessary in 1989, 10 years later it’s old news–like something
on Sex and the City, only not as witty and knowing. The hero, Leo (Kevin
McKidd), is a gay man who goes through an adventure of discovery after joining
a men’s group (a very 1989 idea); the ostensibly straight man he falls
for (James Purefoy) is going through a trial separation from his longtime wife
(Jennifer Ehle, who looks so much like a twentysomething Meryl Streep it’s
scary). Simon Callow has some amusing bits as the men’s group leader, though
again, it’s not exactly an original or useful part.

There are three very good
scenes–a postcoital conversation between the men about the difference between
straight and gay love; a blistering confrontation about the future of their
relationship; a flirtation between the hero and his lover’s wife where
Troche’s camera dips down to check out his hand caressing her knee–and
a terrific performance by Tom Hollander as the hero’s more overtly queeny
roommate. All in all, though, it’s a disappointing followup to a distinctive
and promising debut.