I paraphrase, but Lex Luthor once said something pertinent to today's lecture. He said: One man can read all the great works of literature and walk away feeling gypped. Another can read the ingredients off of a package of Rice Krispies, and unlock the secrets of the universe. The general thrust of the quote (and no man was wiser than Lex Luthor) is that wisdom can be found in many forms. And while you may up your chances of finding wisdom by consuming a well-established and highly-praised classic, there still may be merit to something that is, popularly, of dubious quality.
Greetings, my gentle students, to another cinematic musing-cum-lecture in this week's Free Film School here in the hallowed halls of CraveOnline. If this is your first lesson, welcome. If you have been following all along, I hope you've been doing the homework. This is the best kind of homework, in that I won't be grading you, and you don't have to do it if you don't want to. Just like you wished it was back in the 4th grade. What's more, you're usually assigned just to watch movies, and that's always fun, right?
Well, not always. As we know all too well, some movies can be an arduous task to sit through. Not because they’re arch, complex and difficult, but because they're bad. The bulk of films you're going to see are necessarily average. Some may be fun, some may be rotten, but most will be kind of bland and inoffensive at best. They will be sufficient in their storytelling, sufficient in their laughs/swoons/scares, and remain in your memory for about as long as that one particular fast food meal you bought on a whim three weeks ago. They are designed to be chewing gum for the eyes.
To be sure, there are great films in the world that can reach deep into the well of life philosophy, and can expose you to the grandness and largeness of life and the universe. Great films can stimulate your intellect, wrench your gut, challenge you, and enlighten you accordingly. But, just from a base mathematical and statistical perspective, those films can't crop up too often. Which means, on your cinematic journey, you're going to see way more stinkers than you are truly Great Films. What was the last film you saw that moved you to passion? You'll have to think about that. What was, by contrast, the last film you saw that was merely “okay?” It may have been the last one you saw. By this tenuous logic, you can reach the conclusion that the vast bulk of films out there are bad-to-mediocre movies.
(I don't want to sound pessimistic, of course. Every film ought to be approached with a mild air of cautious optimism. However awful it sounds, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death may prove to be a major classic. You have to watch the film to be sure.)
So in this sea of potentially bad movies – as any serious trek into the art form would prove to be – what is a viewer to do? Well, thanks to Lex Luthor, we can take away the following conjecture: Bad movies have value. They serve a function. And, yes, they have a philosophy. Let us delve into this idea a bit, shall we?
First off, bad films have the obvious function of serving as a standard by which to measure other films. This is pretty obvious. How can you tell what is great if you didn't also have a slew of mediocre films that have set the tone for judgment? But this is a dull and utilitarian explanation, so we shall move on.
Bad films are far more educational than good ones. True, I would implore any student who is even the slightest bit interested in film to watch some of the greats (Citizen Kane, All About Eve, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Tokyo Story, Persona, etc.), and to give them serious consideration. I would be remiss not to recommend the greatest films, and implore that they be given careful study. But if you are interested in actually making films, or are interested in the actual mechanics of filmmaking, studying a great film or filmmaker will only give you lessons on how to emulate that film or filmmaker. If you study Persona, you'll only learn how to make films exactly like Ingmar Bergman (which may not be all bad, come to think of it). But if you're a filmmaker looking for your own voice, or a mere film enthusiast who wants to learn how to look at films more objectively, then it's off to the well of mediocre/bad films for you.
If you are watching a bad film, you will more likely notice the filmic arts whose usual stock in trade is being unseen. Old Irish proverb: A good bell can be heard far. A bad bell, still farther. Good editing (if it's done well enough) will not be noticed. Bad editing will openly announce itself. A bad musical choice will crash into your ears. A bad performance, a bad camera angle, a piece of bad light, and especially bad special effects, all will be immediately noticed (and cringed at) by even the most casual observer. It's here that you begin, as a mental defense to the film, to re-orchestrate the movie. You may find yourself silently re-writing dialogue in your head so it sounds better. Or choosing new camera angles. Or thinking of entirely new ways to shoot the scene. Lo and behold, you're flexing your creative muscles. A bad film can temper the mind.
But, again, that is technical. What of the bad films we observe as viewers? What of them? Why do we watch bad films? Or, more pertinently, why do we enjoy some of them?
I am a proponent of bad cinema. Not all bad films, mind you, but films that prove themselves to be entertaining. Often a bad film will not merely be technically incompetent (which happens often), or badly written (which happens even more often), or even based on a bad idea (which always happens), but will be some loving combination of the three. They will start from a misguided place, and a crew of bloody-minded filmmakers will commit it to film. A viewer will watch these misguided elements unfold, and they will find themselves laughing a little bit. Not with the film, certainly, and not at it necessarily, but with the filmmakers. With the people who worked so hard to bring this to us. For bad films, they go beyond their own existence as films, and begin to take on an extra Platonic metaphysical quality. Soon you're not looking at the film, but the film-in-itself, if you will. It is an ideal form. It was the brainchild of a hardworking filmmaker. You begin to picture not a bad film with bad acting, but an external narrative about the hard work of the filmmakers. Every scene is a scene of itself, but it's also the story of what another person thought you might find entertaining. We've pointed our cameras at some weird stuff over the years. Sometimes a film fails on a subjective level, but becomes a fascinating object on an objective level.
Hence, you are looking at a bad film, knowing in your mind that it is unskilled, poorly told, and badly made, but you find yourself enjoying it nonetheless. You are smiling. You are genuinely entertained. And not in a mean-spirited way. You are moved by the oddball object in front of you. Are Ed Wood's films good? No they are not. And yes they are. This plays into the idea of Auteur Theory that I wrote about a few weeks back.
Is there such thing as a “guilty pleasure?” Many seem to reject this idea. Many feel that if you derive pleasure from something, even if it is a notoriously bad film, then it should still count as a pleasure, and no guilt is necessary. I'm not sure if I entirely agree with this. There are many films I enjoy that I cannot defend. As a critic, I have to admit if I enjoyed a film, however widely hated it is. (I recently wrote an article defending Ang Lee's Hulk, knowing full well it is disparaged by superhero fans the world over.) I think there are such things as guilty pleasures. Things that are personal and sacred to us, yet we know our friends would not be into. I encourage you to embrace your nerdy passions with both arms. Defend them if you must. But pick your battles. Some pleasures are guilty and may not be easily accepted by your peers. Nothing, however, sets a better example than living by your passions.
If, however, the object in question remains fallow for years, and it is only held dear by a few devoted fans, it may eventually find its way out of conversations, and people will forget the outrage. They will approach the film freshly. They may enjoy it. They may show it to friends. It will become a curio. An oddity. A secret handshake. A byword for the initiates who now have a shared crucible. This is how cult films begin.
A great film, I have observed before, can feel like homework. A mediocre film will keep us mildly entertained. But a bad film, just like a good one, can be a dear and personal experience. This may sound like a dubious argument, but I will honestly put forth the following: Bad films are more personal than good ones. A good film can touch you and move you, and, in the best of cases, teach a new way of thinking, and a new way of feeling. They can inform, instill compassion, and elevate the viewer. But there's often something universal about a great film. Something that applies to the human condition. There's a reason that Top 10 lists from far-flung sources always feature a few repeats.
A bad film (and I'm talking about ones that make you feel bad now), by contrast, can feel like a personal affront. Like it's not just bad filmmaking, but that the filmmaker has gone out of their way to insult and hurt you and you alone. Top 10 lists may be similar, but Bottom 10 lists are like fingerprints. Think about it for a second. What are the 10 worst films you have seen? The very worst? The ones that made you feel bad about yourself and bad about the world? How many people do you think share that exact list?
Critics often hate bad films, and will spew hot ropy strands of gooey critical bile all over them, but – and I can say this as a critic – they find a certain ease in writing about them. Critics have more passion for a bad film than they do for a mediocre one. A mildly entertaining film that is merely competent instills no passion, and inspires no deep thought, and, hence, will be difficult to write about. A bad film will inspire.
It may be based in vitriol and anger and queasiness, but bad films have the power to move someone to a deep passion. Once the pain has worn off, you find yourself stronger. Wiser. And capable of warning your friends.
The next time a friend asks that you watch some goofy, horrible-sounding curio that they love, maybe give it a shot. If a critic warns you away from something, consider that it may suck. But know that if you see a bad film, you are fulfilling a passionate and inevitable need in your aesthetic development. Some find wisdom in Citizen Kane. Others? Well, there's a reason Plan 9 from Outer Space has the reputation it does.
Homework for the Week:
What are the worst films you've seen? The absolute worst? The ones that made you feel rotten inside? Do your friends agree? Do you have any guilty pleasures? The bad films you personally love? Have you ever watched a film you knew to be bad, but found it entertaining in spite of yourself? What are your views on bad films? Do you feel they're inevitable? A wasted opportunity? To be treasured? How is seeing a bad film changed when you watch it with friends? How much of your enjoyment of a bad film is based in mockery, and how much is based in real affection? Watch Plan 9 from Outer Space, or any of the films pictured above. Are they entertaining?