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In Tim Burton's recent big-screen biography of Ed Wood, actor Johnny Depp re-created key scenes from several of that Grade Z movie director's masterworks from the 1950s: In the climactic flying-saucer attack that highlights Plan 9 From Outer Space, flaming paper plates dangling from fishing poles strafe a papier-mƒch‚ model of the Hollywood hills. In Bride of the Monster, an aging Bela Lugosi wrestles with a limp rubber octopus. And in the truly bizarre Glen or Glenda?--a transvestite epic in which fully a quarter of the running time is cobbled together from stock footage of buffalo stampedes, freeway traffic, bazooka blasts and the like--Depp-as-Wood even appears as his own star, prowling a downtown shopping district in full drag.
While many audience members stared in slack-jawed disbelief, at least one Valley viewer saw more than a little of himself in the incredible-but-true biopic.
Much like cross-dressing schlockmeister Wood, Phoenix videomaker Paul Wilson revels in using stock footage, deliriously cheesy special effects and mind-boggling plot lines to flesh out his peculiar artistic visions. Going Ed Wood one better, Wilson even uses a potted philodendron as a stand-in for his own favorite "leading lady"--himself--while he focuses his camera and sets the lights.
Armed with only basic video equipment--his eight-year-old GE camcorder is held together with duct tape--and an imagination that won't quit, the prolific, 30-year-old artist has managed to turn out an astounding zilch-budget oeuvre--some 300 short videos over the last ten years. In the process, he's created a demented 1950s universe in which a housewife entertains an extraterrestrial while her husband is at work, a libidinous GI Joe in a Wile E. Coyote mask menaces Barbie and Ken on a dream date, and a blas‚ homeowner casually straightens a crooked picture after his neighbor's house is leveled by an atomic bomb.
According to the relatively few fans fortunate enough to have seen his work, Wilson may well be the most talented moviemaker to emerge from the Valley since Scottsdale teenager Steven Spielberg first peered through the viewfinder of his Super 8 back in the Sixties.
"Where does he come up with this stuff?" marvels Kim Moody, director of Alwun House, the downtown art space that's hosted several Wilson screenings over the years. "It's amazing how he's encapsulated the Fifties the way he has. Watch this guy--something's going to click."
Valley Art Theatre owner Krista Griffin shares that enthusiasm. Explaining that Wilson copped first place in an amateur filmmakers' festival held at her Tempe cinema last summer, she says, "Paul Wilson's videos are so far ahead of anything anyone else in town is doing, there really was no comparison. He's going to make it." Griffin hopes to present "An Evening With Paul Wilson" at the Mill Avenue moviehouse sometime next month.
Although familiar to those who frequent the Valley's more avant-garde galleries, the artist's video work remains largely unknown to the general public. A freelance scenic artist by trade, Wilson is probably best remembered for last year's controversial "stalker" art show in which he displayed homoerotic pencil drawings and cutouts documenting his obsession with actor Parker Stevenson ("Idol Threat?", September 22, 1993). Although Wilson insisted that show was a harmless spoof of celebrity obsession, the bizarre exhibition was sufficiently disturbing to attract national press.
A year later, Wilson has all but forgotten Stevenson as he embraces his latest passions. Today, the artist is gung-ho on creating his own revisionist view of the American Fifties, a period he perceives as the apex of world culture. "My interest is rooted purely in the aesthetics of the era," says Wilson, who was not born until 1963. Explaining that his impression of the decade has been largely molded by old television commercials, outdated catalogues, back issues of women's magazines and thrift-store safaris, he adds, "Everything seemed so, well, courteous back then."
Readily admitting that he's probably looking at the decade through rose-colored harlequin glasses ("Living with all that conservatism, poor health care and no VCRs would not be pleasant"), Wilson nevertheless wishes he could hop the next way-back machine. Since he can't, he's doing the next best thing via his videos, as well as a series of elaborate, cut-and-paste collages crowded with multiple images of himself in various guises. "This is how badly I want to have experienced this--and this is the only way I can do it," says Wilson, who uses the collages to "interact" with himself. Looking like large blowups of drug-store snapshots, the vivid, pop-artish creations allow Wilson to portray all the members in a family gathering, everyone present at a Tupperware party and, in one of his most remarkable images, more than a dozen different guests whooping it up at a cocktail soiree. "I would so love to be able to step back in time and just go to one of these parties," explains Wilson. "This is the only way I can be every character and really experience the whole thing. Then, when I'm done shooting for the day and I'm washing all this stuff off my face, it's like, 'Wow, what a great party!' And these pictures are like the evidence--it's 1959 and I was there."