While it’s not as famous as Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood is an early film by Tim Burton beloved by many fans. Its quirks abound: it’s shot in black and white, using camera angles and lighting techniques to tip the hat to classic movies; Johnny Depp appears in drag and talks about parachuting into Normandy wearing women’s underclothes; and Bill Murray, Martin Landau, and Vincent D’Onofrio all give memorable performances as Hollywood legends Bunny Breckinridge, Bela Legosi, and Orson Welles.
Ed Wood tells the true story of its eponymous hero, known as one of the worst filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden age. Ed Wood’s most famous creation was Plan 9 from Outer Space, which came back into the public consciousness when it was lambasted on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Burton crafts an entertaining and heartbreaking film in which you find yourself cheering for Ed despite his obvious incompetence and total lack of self-awareness. The final scenes depicting the making of Plan 9 play out triumphantly despite their absurdity — you’re only reminded that the rest of the world isn’t on Ed’s side when the cast and crew arrive at the premiere and get booed out of the theater. That’s when the cold, heavy truth settles on you, as the end titles roll: Ed Wood was irreversibly, passionately devoted to his art, and he completely sucked at it.
A friend and I watched Ed Wood together once when we were in college. Afterward, we laughed nervously and looked at each other and said, “I’m not Ed Wood, am I?”
I was going into the arts; my friend was then a pre-med student, and this spring will graduate from medical school. But we were both haunted by the same fear, after that movie: am I absolutely terrible at the thing I love doing, and everyone around me is just too nice to say so?
I think this is a common fear among many people, but it seems especially keen among Millennials, who reportedly are plagued by “impostor syndrome,” the belief that they’re not qualified for anything, despite their skills and education. They’re afraid of being Ed Wood, but in certain circumstances, that fear could turn us into Ed Wood. As Megan McArdle points out in her great article for The Atlantic, Millennials seem to fear failure more than any other living generation, which is why so few are willing to go into fields that challenge them to go beyond their natural talents. Her example is the writer who procrastinates because he fears writing something bad more than he fears having nothing to hand in — but of course, he’ll only improve his writing if he writes in the first place. He has to be willing to fail in order to succeed.
But if failure is seen as a trait, and not a step in a process, a lot of Millennials simply don’t want to take the risk. In their minds, writing one bad blog post or one failed pitch or one bad novel makes them an Ed Wood.
Some days, I regret that I ever saw Ed Wood. Scenes from it drift into my mind whenever I’m about to tackle a complex new creative project that takes me out of my comfort zone. It taunts me: I ask myself if one day, years after my death, people will look back and laugh at what I tried to do, if they remember me at all.
But there’s one thing that stands out to me when I look back on that movie. Ed tries a lot of things, and fails. And then he tries the same things, and fails in many of the same ways. Over and over again…the definition of insanity. It wasn’t trying or even his initial failures that made him such a tragic, absurd figure — it was never growing that did. (At least, in the world of the movie.) He was trapped in his own fantasy world, incapable of understanding how or where he needed to improve. He was constantly seduced by the idea, and never gave enough attention to the execution. The wonderful thing about creative ideas is that they live in a place where they can never be proven to be failures — in the mind.
The comfort I settled on was: I have to be Ed Wood to not be Ed Wood. I have to try something, perhaps something well beyond my abilities, and risk failing at it, in order to grow and learn. And then I have to do something even more difficult: I have to figure out what caused my failures, and I have to do it differently next time. Ed Wood will always occupy a little bit of my headspace, but I will no longer allow him to strangle me like a giant rubber octopus.