Avant-garde? You heard me. What is the definition of avant-garde film? Some attributes are unconventional narrative, unique visual style, radical rejection of artistic or social norms, an often willful disregard for reality. Gloria Floren said "Avant-garde films are often iconoclastic, mocking conventional morality and traditional values; the filmmaker's intense interest in eccentricities and extremes may shock viewers. Indeed, the avant-garde film maker's purpose may be to wake or shake up the audience from the stupor of ordinary consciousness or the doldrums of conventional perspective."
Imagine if people viewed "Un Chien Andalou" or "Meshes Of The Afternoon" or "Eraserhead" with fratboy derision instead of holy reverence. They'd be viewed as unwatchable nonsense too. Everybody'd have a good snark watching for continuity errors and bad camera moves. Does "Glen or Glenda" rise to the level of those classics? Time will tell, but try this experiment: watch it as if it were, and see. The results may surprise you.
Here are some hints. Lugosi is not a mad scientist--he's God, looking down upon twisted human morality and "pulling the strings". The "green eyed monster" that "eats little boys"? Envy. Envy of women and in this case, their clothes. That envy has "eaten" vast amounts of Glen's life, it's been a torture to him. There are numerous references to that torture and misery. There's also an entire section devoted to judgment--human judgment versus that reserved to God.
The "nonsensical" stock footage of buffaloes and the army? It signifies the rush of adrenaline, fear and anxiety as "Glen" tries to confront his identity and "come out" to his girlfriend. Far from random, it's actually used with ingenuity and skill.
The symbology of scenes in which "Glen" battles his female self and resists the devil should be obvious. But then again, a generous viewing of "Glen or Glenda," rather than a beer-fueled "let's watch a crap movie" viewing, would reveal a great deal. Even the campy scene at the end, when Dolores Fuller relents and gives Glen her sweater, comes with the always-missed segment where God absolves Glen of his misery. There are a dozen moments like this. Sure, there are a dozen technical flubs and random nonsense too, but all good art is organic. There's a guy wearing a Timex in "Ben-Hur," for god's sake.
The "narrator" seems comical and dated to us, but in 1953 he was standard-issue, and the lines we now take as campy were then revolutionary, almost treasonous. A plea for tolerance for sexual and gender differences? Condemning the police for arresting gays and transvestites just for existing? During the McCarthy era, when all homosexuals were presumed to be communists? A film like that is bound to make some enemies. Especially a film that featured, not actors playing "deviants," but the deviants themselves, in their own words.
It's telling that the extreme-religious-conservative Medved brothers were the ones who named Ed Wood "worst director of all time." They must have thought they were really sticking it to Ed Wood for making all those subversively weird films involving crossdressing and homosexuals and society's outcasts. Thankfully, irony remains the most powerful force in the universe, and their mean-spirited declaration made Ed Wood a household name. Whether they admit it or not, a lot of this movie's detractors are laughing at the subject, not the movie. Many others are baffled by the unconventional narrative. Just because you don't get something, doesn't mean there is nothing to get.
It's easy to give any movie the MST3K treatment, especially ones that veer into uncomfortable or seemingly absurd territory. If you're looking for the worst movie ever made, go watch "Armageddon" or "Crossroads." If you're looking for THE pioneering moment in GLBT film history, the greatest and most underrated American DIY avante-garde feature of its time, or an experience that just might change the way you view movies and the world at large, start right here.