Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 142: Graphing Ed Wood

Ed Wood stares at the peaks and valleys of his debut film, Glen or Glenda.

This whole thing goes back to Michael Bey. (Don't worry. It eventually leads to Ed Wood.) Back in 2007, Michael's hit film Transformers, based on the 1980s Hasbro toy line, had cinephiles everywhere in an uproar. Was this loud, ugly, CGI-laden toy commercial the future of movies? And, if so, what kind of future was that

Was this the downfall of movies?
Film fanatics were especially appalled by Transformers' average shot length or ASL. That's the average amount of time that elapses between edits—cuts, fades, dissolves, etc. Michael Bey is known for his frantic, fast-paced style, so his Transformers movies have a very low ASL, somewhere around 3 to 4 seconds. Some of Bey's action sequences have an ASL of just 2.7 seconds. Bey wasn't the only director doing this—not even close—but he was the most prominent, so he became the poster child for directors with short attention spans.

This ASL controversy garnered a bit of attention at the time from Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote about it in his Sun-Times column. He, too, fretted about those ever-declining shot lengths and longed for the more leisurely-paced films of the past. I was a regular reader of Ebert's reviews and columns, so that's how the phenomenon came to my attention. I'm not sure I would have known about it otherwise, since I didn't attend a lot of big budget action blockbusters back then. (I still don't.)

Nevertheless, I was curious about this whole ASL phenomenon because it gave me a different perspective on movies and TV shows. In one of his articles, Roger Ebert mentioned a site called Cinemetrics, which housed a database of user-submitted ASL graphs for various movies. I was interested enough in this topic to submit a few graphs of my own using Cinemetrics' own handy measurement software. The software really does most of the work for you. All you do is watch the movie normally, while clicking every time there's an edit. The software completes the graphing and calculating when you're done.

Between August and September 2007, not long after the release of Transformers, I submitted nine different ASL graphs to Cinemetrics: two episodes of The Simpsons (I wanted to compare different eras of the show), a notorious Sid Davis "educational" short, and six feature films, one of which was Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda (1953). I recently revisited Cinemetrics for the first time in years and found to my delight that those graphs are all still there! You can find them by going to the database page and searching for my last name, Blevins.

As for the Glen or Glenda graph I made over 15 years ago, what information does it yield? Hell if I know. I'm neither a filmmaker nor a statistician, so a lot of this is beyond my ken. I suppose I just wanted to see how Ed's movies were put together. Here's what I had to say about the editing of Glen or Glenda back in 2007:
A truly schizophrenic movie, editing-wise. Ed Wood alternates long takes with rapid-fire montages. There is a definite chasm between the scenes filmed with sound (lengthy static shots) and the scenes filmed silently (quick montages, often consisting of stock footage with post-dubbed narration). I must note here that this analysis is based on the Image DVD, which itself was made from a censored print of the film. Various small cuts, normally a phrase here or there, occur throughout the film. The censor clearly wanted to get rid of the word "sex" whenever possible. Whether this actually affects the number of shot changes, I do not know.
What's great about the Cinemetrics site is that you can customize the graph in a number of ways. For fun, try messing with the various settings, including "step," "degree of trendline," and "moving average range." Maybe, if you know filmmaking or statistics, these terms might even mean something to you. They don't mean much to me, I must confess. Anyway, here's how the Glenda graph looks at the sixth degree of the trendline.

A Cinemetrics ASL graph for Glen or Glenda.

I did find out that Glen or Glenda has a leisurely average shot length of 10.6 seconds. Ed's movies tend to be pretty sluggish, so this didn't surprise me. But I noticed there were three separate passages during which Glenda's ASL plunges precipitously. The first occurs about 11 minutes into the movie when Ed gives us a montage of stock shots and narration. ("If the creator wanted us to fly...") The second starts at about the 35-minute mark when Glen has a lengthy nightmare that ultimately evolves (or devolves) into a burlesque show. The third and final such passage occurs nearly an hour into the movie when Alan is transitioning into Ann. This, too, is presented as a rapid-fire montage.

Amazingly, I was not the only Cinemetrics user to graph an Ed Wood film! Back in 2008, a user named Hilary Mogul submitted a graph for Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). Hilary found that the movie had an ASL of 7.8, nearly three seconds shorter than Glenda, so maybe Ed's movies were getting a little livelier as he went along. Here's how the Plan 9 graph looks:

A Cinemetrics ASL graph for Plan 9 from Outer Space.

I think you'll agree that the editing is much less, uh, idiosyncratic this time around. In terms of pacing, Plan 9 lacks the big ups and downs of Glenda. The only major dip in ASL occurs about 15 minutes into the movie. That's when we get the montage of flying saucer sightings, accompanied by Criswell's narration. You may notice that the pace picks up right near the end of the movie, too. That's when Jeff, Lt. Harper, and Col. Edwards confront Eros and Tanna in the spaceship. By Ed Wood's standards, this is a fast-paced action scene. Compare the Glenda graph to the Plan 9 graph, and you'll see that Glenda actually slackens the pace in its last few minutes!

In all, I was really heartened to know that the ASL graphs I had made back in 2007 were still available in 2023. Talk about a blast from the past! Back then, I didn't even have a blog, but it's clear that Ed Wood and his movies were on my mind already. What I really hope is that this article leads people to Cinemetrics, and they use the resources there to study Ed's movies (and other directors' movies) in a new way.