In Defense of the Hack

by Tom Ingram

I watched Ed Wood the other day. It stars Johnny Depp as the famous director of uniquely awful B-movies. It’s a very funny movie, one of Tim Burton’s less well-known works. One thing it captures very well is familiar to anyone who’s aware of the Wood oeuvre: Ed Wood’s naive honesty.

When you watch Plan 9 From Outer Space, it seems almost churlish to complain about the movie’s low quality and altogether half-assed production. Wood’s sincerity pervades everything he does. You get the feeling that he wasn’t out to make a buck, or to convert people, or anything like that. He just wanted to tell stories. If it happens that those stories are so poorly crafted they’ve become legendary, it feels wrong to fault him for it. Through Plan 9, he’s baring his soul to you. It would take a heartless cad to trample on that innocent sincerity.

The big climax of Ed Wood is when Ed meets his idol Orson Welles* by chance in a bar. The two of them talk about how hard it is to achieve your directorial vision when the movie’s backers all have their own ideas. Orson says, “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” This inspires Wood to return to the set of Plan 9 and make the movie he intended**.

In the end, Ed Wood is a heroic figure who Got The Job Done. It may not have been liked by all the fancy critics, it may have been made on half a shoestring budget after the death of the lead actor, but they hit theatres and gave the audiences a movie, and that’s what counts.

Ed Wood is a hack. I don’t mean that as a pejorative. He was a working professional who went in and did a day’s work for a day’s pay (less, even) and delivered. That doesn’t command as much respect as it should. The media in its various forms is supported by a legion of hacks. They’re not in it for the glory. They don’t get the critical acclaim or the bitches. They do it for two reasons: they love it, and they’ve got to eat.

Like Wood, there’s an element of honesty to their work, if not necessarily naivete. Since they’re not looking for fame or cocaine, you can expect them to make real statements that matter, to put in some depth. They’re not trying to appeal to critics or make Great Art(tm), so you can expect them to be comprehensible. Some of them gain notoriety, and some of them go on to make fools of themselves. But their work stands on its own.

Who are these hacks? Most of them you can’t even remember. The guys who write novelizations–especially novelizations for unpopular franchises. Thriller writers like Tom Clancy (before he became really famous). Just about any science fiction author at one time or other.

One thing you can always expect from them is competence. The truly bad works are never made by hacks. They’re made by lazy sumbitches or competent writers with an agenda***. The absolute worst you can get from a hack is “mediocre”.

That’s why I think the word “hack” should be reclaimed. A true hack has class, professionalism, and Ed Wood-like honesty. It is a badge of honour. It means one thing and one thing only: you got the job done. You delivered.

* An excellent cameo by dead-ringer Vincent D’Onofrio with voice dubbed by the brilliant impressionist Maurice LaMarche. [return]

** Incidentally, I don’t think Ed Wood was that bad a director given the financial restrictions he was under. The Sinister Urge is, apart from a couple surreal moments, a fairly good movie. [return]

*** Or lazy sumbitches with an agenda. [return]