The number of articles written about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room could fill the grand canyon three times over. It’s utterly fascinating to dissect and its sheer audacity to exist is straight up endearing. It’s the clear cut poster child for the modern so bad it’s good film. It’s spawned live shows, toys, documentaries, endless midnight screenings, and a tell-all book that was later adapted into a film. It’s a movie that would have most likely been nominated for an Oscar if it wasn’t for the director’s history of sexual misconduct.
It’s an interesting time for “so bad they’re good films.” When sincerity steered the ship for our cinematic misfires like Birdemic, Manos: Hands of Fate, and Troll 2, there are attempts to synthesize that charm (Sharknado, Machete, and Lavalanutla). A controlled demolition, if you will. (I want to exorcise trash cinema from this article. It’s a different thing entirely. Schlocky trash is an intentional genre produced by filmmakers getting by on grit and bubble gum like Troma, John Waters, and Roger Corman).
This begs me to question; how elastic is our ability to enjoy irony? Is there a line of authenticity and can an audience blur that line? In an era where a reality TV star is the President of the United States, is there such a thing as quality camp?
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” – Oscar Wilde
Let’s go back to The Room for a moment. Even though Tommy Wiseau was attempting to carve out something on par with A Street Car Named Desire, he unintentionally made the melodramatic equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Instead of self-destructing from his failure, he proclaimed everything was intentional and his movie was a measured execution of brilliance. He chose a narrative that didn’t pummel his ego. It may not be true, but it doesn’t criticize him personally. Another example: Kevin Smith!
Unsatisfied with his studio ventures, Kevin Smith decided to dip his toe into serious filmmaking. Red State was supposed to be a grisly commentary on Christian extremists and a departure from his corky resume. All things considered, Smith succeeded. Critics were split on his attempt at legitimacy and Smith took the hit. His contention with critics influenced him to retreat into the shell of parody. His next film was Tusk, a horror/comedy about a podcaster being turned into a walrus. After that, the baffling Yoga Hosers. His next film is apparently Moose Jaws. A direct adaptation of Jaws, but with a Moose. Even though the public was tough on Tusk and Yoga Hosers, he could deflect criticism with a sarcastic distance. He gets to avoid the psychological trauma of a battered ego.
“[Kevin Smith’s] contention with critics influenced him to retreat into the shell of parody…”
So, if I have a hypothesis for this article, it’s: sincerity = pure self and Irony = superficial defense mechanism. It’s a broad theory and certainly isn’t the case for every project, but I think there’s some merit. Let us blur some lines with an example; what’s funnier? A Paul Blart style pratfall or a viral video of a pudgy guy missing a diving board? Not to criticize Paul Blart fans, but sign me up for the pudgy guy. He tried, he failed, we laughed. Same thing with Birdemic. It’s more effective when you don’t see the punch coming.
Movies are so ingrained in today’s society, general audiences subconsciously know the beats of production. This is how you frame conversations, this is basically how things are lit, and these are the parameters in which actors perform. The badness of Birdemic pings our subconscious. These aren’t just fake birds, these are impossibly bad fake birds. Unfortunately, James Nguyen was aiming to make a Hitchcockian environmental allegory and not a candidate for “the worst movie ever made.” There’s even a sequel, Birdemic 2: Resurrection. With the reception of its predecessor, the actors knew what they were in for and its integrity was compromised. Unlike Wiseau, Nguyen suffered the full brunt of the criticism.
The reason why the present is so intriguing for “good bad films” is the immediate exposure. Time doesn’t have to labor the movie out from obscurity. Ed Wood died a penniless alcoholic on a friend’s couch at the age of 54. He never knew that there would be an Ed Wood Angora Box Set or a Blu-Ray release of Orgy of the Dead. He never had the opportunity to attend midnight screenings or sign memorabilia at conventions. Most depressing of all, Ed Wood never got to choose his narrative. He could have averted the moral shellacking and proclaimed himself a trailblazing scholar of satire.
“Most depressing of all, Ed Wood never got to choose his narrative.”
It’s small, but there is a market for bad films. There are six Sharknado movies, theaters program bad movie nights, booths sell merchandise at conventions and festivals, and youtube and film blogs endlessly cannibalize these movies with video essays, reviews, and reactions (you’re currently reading one).
With an amorphous yet visible pathway to success, filmmakers have found inspiration to generate their own cinematic clunkers. Samurai Cop 2 was released in 2015, 2018’s Death Kiss is borderline unwatchable but leans on the hook of a Charles Bronson look-a-like, and I’m still waiting to get my hands on a movie called Bad CGI Sharks. They’re universally panned by critics, but the filmmakers get to go, “yeah, but what’d you expect.”
A similar safeguard is awarded to audiences. To maintain superiority over the material, you have to disclaim your attraction (the hipster manifesto). “I like it in a train-wreck, kitsch, or turn-your-brain-off sort of way.’ That’s why having a genuine affinity for a movie can feel like a sordid love affair. I had a roommate that legitimately enjoyed Twilight. I lampooned him for years and even made a short of him realizing it’s terrible (I’m an asshole).
Enjoying something means you have to be vulnerable. You have to cast off your shield of condescension and empathize with the material. It’s scary. You’ve trusted your affection before only to be ridiculed by friends, critics, and/or yourself by the curse of hindsight. Who hasn’t felt the humiliation of listening to their high school playlist (mine’s riddled with Disturbed and POD. Remember POD)?
Now that “bad films” are considered a mainstay and not a phenomenon, will that mold our perceptions of quality? There seems to be an endless array of nostalgic band gimmicks (PowerGlove, Cybertronic Spree, Mac Sabbath). Mac Sabbath is a legitimately talented band, but their means for success were gained sardonically. How do I enjoy them? I have no fucking idea. This is where authenticity and irony coalesce. This is how reality is more or less resembling Professional Wrestling.
Professional Wrestling relies on Kayfabe (staged work presented as real) to exist. Even though it’s common knowledge that wrestling is fake, they still strive to convince you of its authenticity. Therefore, your depth of enjoyment relies on how much you’re willing to believe. And why not? Even though John Cena was engineered to beat Brock Lesnar, their ability to perform in front of thousands of people is insanely impressive. But here’s the rub.
Everyone knew Alex Jones was a lunatic, but his tenacity and longevity eventually clouded enough reality that an armed man walked into a pizza place to stop a Clinton-run human trafficking ring. Right now, Donald Trump has over 10,000 false or misleading statements as president. Does he know he’s lying or has he conditioned himself to believe his own projected self? Regarding the news as “fake” allows his followers to discern their own reality. You no longer have to digest sobering truths, but choose more agreeable arguments. It’s less stressful than self-reflection and easier than personal responsibility.
“You no longer have to digest sobering truths, but choose more agreeable arguments.”
The internet has given us access to more information than any library or university. Whatever you prefer to be true can be substantiated by a wealth of articles, lists, and video essays. Don’t understand how the planet can be round when you look at a level farm? There’s a whole society devoted to a flat earth theory. Want to drink or eat whatever you want without the guilt of common sense? There are lists detailing the health benefits of beer and fried cheese backed by cherry-picked studies.
I’m not declaring The Room set off a Rube Goldberg machine toward the Trump presidency. I’m just correlating the two with the changing times. With more information, comes more options, and with more options, come more preferences. The issue is distinguishing healthy choices from convenient ones. Due to constant revelations from science and data, people are skeptical. That’s why it’s easier to rely on irony. It comes with innate failsafes.
Executed well, irony and sarcasm can spotlight absurdity, alleviate tension, and just be downright hilarious. So, what should we do with “good bad films?” Trying to replicate them is nigh impossible and proof of that is on the ocean floor of the iTunes rental page. If anything is true about the creative field, it’s that attempting to replicate a sensation is a fool’s errand.
We’re about to see the fourth attempt at a Terminator reboot and Halloween is getting its third direct sequel after eleven films (including a Rob Zombie reboot). Sequels and reboots are carved in the history of cinema. They make money. There are remakes of The Great Train Robbery from 1903. But if you take anything away from this read, cherish good-bad films for what they are: rare gems of unbridled creative sincerity in a cavern of post-modern cynicism.
Thanks for reading.
Other Z-Grade Gems: Future Wars, Suburban Sasquatch, Things, Crazed Science, Ryan’s Babe, Hollywood Cop, Fateful Findings, Ben and Arthur.
Notes On “Camp” by Susan Sontag – https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html
The Ironic Feudalist by Jeremy Woolsey – https://aeon.co/essays/echoes-of-kure-tomofusas-thought-in-the-nrx-movement
We’re living in Trump’s Kayfabe by Jonah Goldberg – https://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2018/08/10/We-re-living-in-Trump-s-kayfabe-world/stories/201808100021
The Society of Spectacle – Guy DeBord – https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm
How to Live without Irony – Christy Wampole – https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/