2010: Whiskey and Popcorn
The art of watching bad movies

2010: A ROMCOM WITH UGLY PROTAGONISTS

When people look back critically on cinema in 2010, most of them will probably think, man, that year sucked. For the most part, I couldn’t agree more. But I mean that as a compliment: this was the year I fell in love with watching shitty movies.

Granted, the initial stirring in my critical loins for cinematic crap started long ago. R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet (both discs) is one of my prized possessions. Watching Showgirls with a few friends and a lot of booze sounds like an ideal night (don’t judge). But mature relationships like this take time to develop. Little kids may love Teletubbies, but it’s not because they realize their evil acid nightmare genius; it’s because they’re still too dumb to realize how much they suck.

This year, though, all the conditions were just right for my crap-crush to flower into a turd-blossom: 2010’s general cinematic suckiness, a $3 theater at hand, and too much time on my hands — more potent a setup than anything the kids in Parent Trap could have thought up. But I didn’t sit through Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and fork over $15 to see the re-released Avatar 3D, with its 7 minutes of additional footage of big CGI alien hippie trees, just because I was in a relationship of convenience. This year, I discovered that, unlike any other art form, it’s very often the worst movies that are the most amazing.

In a way, this idea permeates my list of favorites from 2010. The films that brought me the most joy this year were as bad as they were commendable. Trash Humpers, Enter the Void, Machete, and Flooding with Love for the Kid are all great films that also, in their own unique ways, suck. And that’s part of their appeal.

I could attempt to explain away their elements of suckiness with arguments like “it was totally, like, intentional, and they were actually being ironic or something,” or break out the Russian Formalist argument advocating artistic defamiliarization. But even if I did, the assertion that sometimes crappiness is as appealing as goodness would still create an obstacle course of conceptual hurdles that rivals the set of American Gladiator in scope, especially for someone who reviews films for a site with a rating scale of 1-to-5 red dots. If I give a film a 5, does that mean that it also has a healthy dose of 0? And, by that logic, is a 2.5 actually the most desirable rating for a budding auteur? Why didn’t I take any math classes in college?

And, to get to the point: what about the stuff I saw this year that just plain blew that I really enjoyed nonetheless?

The short answer? I probably snuck in a bottle of whiskey with my friends.

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WHO’S IN THE ROOM?

Early this year, I was bored and alone in my house and I made a very bad decision. I know better now, but back then, at that time in my life, it seemed like a fine idea to get under the covers, flip open my laptop, plug in my headphones, and, all alone, watch The Room, a film regarded by many as the worst ever made. Let’s just say it was a learning experience.

Objectively, I could understand how the film had all the right elements to make it a midnight mass cult classic. The acting was weirdly and forcefully off. The sex scenes seemed created by oversexed virgins who fetishized rose petals, soft linens, and snacking on strawberries and chocolates. The woman everyone was always lusting after and calling beautiful was very much not. And yet it still wasn’t much fun to watch. I took breaks to read emails, pay bills, floss my teeth — anything to add some variety to The Room’s oppressive badness.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I was invited to a Bad Movie Party at which The Room was the featured presentation. I RSVPd for the chance to catch up with the party’s host, a friend I hadn’t seen in years. But I also had a hunch about the film. I’m a compassionate person, I believe in second chances. And I was right: this time, The Room felt like an inspired piece of filmmaking and, more importantly, ridiculously fun to watch.

It was as if my friend’s small living room had become a slightly-inebriated echo chamber, the feedback loop between audience and flatscreen TV amplifying whatever had any innate hint of comedy, weirdness, or just plain awesomeness (more in the Biblical than the surfer sense). The movie’s idiosyncratic quirks — like how the only greeting anyone uses is a delayed-reaction “Oh, hi [insert name]” that sounds at once surprised, creepy, and uncaring — were easier to identify and impossible not to appreciate. The endless sex scenes, tiring when I watched them alone, were now on par with surrealist director Luis Buñuel’s most surrealist moments — even each appearance by star/director Tommy Wiseau’s ridiculous buttcheek itself seemed like a sinewy piece of unfortunately unforgettable genius.

Sitting in that room watching The Room, I was reminded of the critical role the audience plays in the cinematic experience. With our recently-acquired access to devices made for personal entertainment, it’s easy to forget that, throughout most of its history, cinema has been an art form that has thrived on audience participation — or at least audience presence. I’m not railing against technology or modernity — I’m writing this on a laptop while listening to MP3s and watching my Furbie dance. But if I reflect on the most entertaining experiences I’ve had with movies, none of them have involved an audience of one. Maybe that’s why, despite film’s much longer history, the laugh track was only created in 1950, just as televisions were becoming widespread in postwar American nuclear households — to let any audiences of one who were watching the newly-invented sitcoms know that it was okay to laugh, and that they wouldn’t be doing it alone.

When it’s appropriate to laugh is an important, and not-often-considered, piece of information for the audience of any kind of art. It’s also complex, both technically and morally, as the inescapable discourse over this year’s internet-to-Billboard song “Bed Intruder” demonstrates. Or, you know, the awkward moments when you discover someone you otherwise respected thinks Dane Cook is funny. But putting morality and taste somewhat aside: on a technical level, when it’s okay to laugh, along with its different permutations (like simply knowing when the artist is being deliberately “bad”), is highly variable, dependent on the unique characteristics of each art form and even the internal logic of individual works.

One reason, then, why shitty movies might be more enjoyable than shitty novels, for example, is that while reading a novel is a solitary act that occurs independently of space and time, watching a movie involves taking part in a live — albeit in part, pre-recorded — performance. Movies are unique hybrids between a live theatrical performance and mechanically (or digitally) reproduced “texts.”

As a theatrical experience, film offers a pretty convincing approximation of the person-driven spectacle of performance. But unlike most kinds of performances, in which the performers are physically present — concerts, plays, ballet — when we watch a film we have no reason to feel guilty if we think, and even express, that what’s being performed really sucks. The fact that we’re free to laugh without hurting anyone’s feelings is a magical and liberating combination that makes watching something shitty a lot more enjoyable.

The difference, thus, between watching, say, Showgirls and watching open mic night is the difference between a cartoon banana peel joke and actually watching someone break their legs.

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CRITICAL GEOMETRY: TOWARDS A DONUT-BASED SYSTEM OF RANKINGS

I propose that new shapes for rankings — to replace linear scales of dots, numbers, and stars — are needed that take into account the value of crappiness in different art forms. I propose this jokingly and also not. And I propose these shapes here, in this section, for no other reason than that I’ve already written a bunch of stuff and you probably want a break. So, here are some drawings for you to look at.

• Music: Music badness and goodness is, in essence, linear and sequential. If you dislike a song, then it will most likely annoy the fuck out of you. If you like a song, it will most likely elicit a more positive response from you, whether physical, emotional, or cerebral. Sure, there’s some wiggle room for irony, but chances are, if you “ironically” like “November Rain” enough to go “woo hoo” every time it plays in your favorite “dive bar,” you actually just think, deep down, that the song is amazing, but you can’t admit it to yourself because you’re a snob.

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• Visual Arts: When the visual arts leapt into modernity, they pretty much obliterated the barriers between goodness and badness. Art’s no longer about representation or meaning, so how can you badly make a piece of art representing a tree? You can’t. Well, you can, but it would probably be more interesting — in terms of aesthetics, form, blah — than a good artwork representing a tree. Unless — as Banksy really wants you to believe, if you’ve seen Exit Through the Gift Shop — it’s somehow an “inauthentic” or “unoriginal” artwork representing a tree, in which case it is horrible. Unless you, the artist, are aware you are being inauthentic and unoriginal, in which case it’s okay, because then you are making a statement about authenticity, which is really interesting. It’s like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, except that’s not a serious art work.

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• Written Word: You might be thinking that the written word can be written badly and it will be okay. Maybe it is funny if it is bad and you will laugh. Hahaha you think I am smarter than people who use grammar bad and can’t spell. But no that is not true except in things that are short like everything on the internet. Also George Saunders, Tao Lin, David Foster Wallace may he rest in sleep, Miranda July and some other writers who are talented and just don’t want to write like they are sometimes because that is funny for effect and their readers they know are smart and will be in on the joke. But would you read a whole novel that was written shitty like it was by someone who wasn’t smart? No you would not because you would want to die or if you were lucky would just fall asleep. Reading a whole book is just so much work and even more if it is so so bad. If you are arguing with these ideas just imagine if this whole article were written as if just like this paragraph. Would you read? See I win.

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• Movies: I get about the same pleasure from watching Showgirls as I do from watching Talk to Her. Part of the reason for this is that bad movies are funny, but my appreciation isn’t just ironic. Bad movies can make overly-familiar cinematic tropes seem brand new, because they execute them so poorly. They remind us what we can do without — compelling characters, believable dialogue, original plot — and by doing so, let us know how limitless and flexible our enjoyment of watching a screen can be. In this way, movies are very much like donuts, which are horrible and also amazing. Like that sugar-infused fried dough, they stimulate your senses lopsidedly; you’re aware of the badness hidden within, and the damage you’re doing to your body by shoving it down your throat just makes you appreciate being alive. That’s actually a horrible metaphor; I just like the donut’s shape.

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DONUT HOLES: CAVEATS

So, good movies are good as movies; bad movies are good as experiences. That’s convenient, because I’m really not interested in reviewing Prince of Persia or Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and it’s not like they need the press anyway. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to say. The experiences I created this year with a snuck-in flask in cheap theaters with noisy audiences were really entertaining. Here’s some random stuff I learned from them, caveats to my donut movie rankings system. I hope they help!

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Cartoons and Children’s Movies: Bad cartoons are a big exception to the donut system. They’re just bad, and maybe even enjoyably so, but never transcendent. We’re all just too brainwashed to realize it because we’ve been watching bad cartoons since we were kids. Thanks a lot, Captain Planet.

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Comedies Need Lube, Too: Watching Get Him to the Greek, it became clear as pre-cum to me that bro-bonding flicks are hobbling on their last testicle. I guess it was the scene in which a girl actually manages to shove a large dildo into Jonah Hill’s character’s virgin butt, sans lube. In a film so bogged down with trying to update tropes of masculinity, anal-insertion jokes that defy the laws of physics seem to violate (ha!) the film’s own weird internal logic. I knew, from Get Him’s messagy bits, that the filmmakers probably wanted their audience to be well beyond judging dudes who like to get pegged, so how was I supposed to laugh?

A lot of bad comedies suffer similarly: by trying to be decent movies, they fail to be funny. That makes them an exception to much of what I’ve said about bad films. In most bad films, the humor is in the unintentional, in watching someone fail to make a good movie. But there’s nothing funny about watching someone fail to make a good joke. Bad comedies, then, are probably the least entertaining thing since shredded wheat (frosted kind excepted).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, this year’s Hot Tub Time Machine is a horrible movie. The hot tub vortex looks like someone put a bunch of Christmas lights underwater. It feels like it was edited by someone throwing darts across the room at the storyboard. The film’s universe is as ill-conceived and carelessly made as its jokes. And because of that, it’s an okay comedy. At least, a bunch of dudes in hoodies behind me in the theater who were really high agree with me.

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Press Screenings and Other Buzz Kills: Screenings of senior film school projects. Special events with the director present. A friend who has bad taste showing you their favorite film. The magic of a bad film vanishes quickly in the presence of someone with a vested interest in you thinking the film is good. This is especially true for press screenings, which, when the film is bad, turn into a bizarre mirror-world of a friend’s living room during Bad Movie Night: the need to RSVP, warm greetings when you arrive, comfy couches, and free refreshments. But far from the living room’s echo-chamber effect, the intimate theaters of press screenings have been soundproofed against your taking any joy in cinematic failure.

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The Wolfman and The Wolf Man: A friend of mine wondered aloud why everyone thought this year’s The Wolfman was so bad; wasn’t it, he asked, a perfectly acceptable homage to the 1941 original, The Wolf Man, which was pretty cheesy itself?

But, to a 1941 audience, was it? Cheese is culturally (ha!) conditioned, based on currently accepted artistic conventions and not on objective measures of realism. The audience, not the film, determines cheesiness. (This is why we’re not total dicks if we laugh at foreign films even when they’re not supposed to be funny.) To audiences accustomed to the special effects of the day, The Wolf Man was probably as believable as anything else onscreen. They might have even thought it was a truly good monster movie. Today, though, it along with its remake are pretty much wolf turds.

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Science Fiction, Incest, and Adrien Brody: I went to see Splice because I used to have a fat crush on Sarah Polley when I was 9, but watching it, I was more attracted to her “daughter,” a test-tube baby that was part chicken, part reptile, part goat, and just the right amount of human (which came from Polley’s character’s DNA). When Polley’s character’s husband, played by Adrien Brody’s nose, sleeps with the creature, it was one of the more glorious cinematic moments of the year. My heart leapt. God bless those Canadians for managing to combine incest, pedophilia (the creature looked very developed, but was technically only a few months old), and beastiality in one swoop.

Sitting there, after I was done wondering whether or not I would now be unable to live near any public parks for thinking the scene was hot, I thought about how it’s often wonderment at the technical specifics of holodecks, Cylon reproduction, and what female wookiees might look like that draws us into fantasy and, especially, science fiction. Few of these films transcend their genre to become simply good, but that’s not what’s important. Not all of the Star Trek films were as painfully bad as the one where they save all those whales, but even if they were, people would still be arguing over Klingon grammar while wearing futuristic onesies.

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WE’VE TALKED ABOUT DONUTS. NOW LET’S HAVE FISH FOR DESSERT.

Literary theorist Stanley Fish, one of the founders of the reader-response school of literary criticism, has argued that one of our most basic beliefs about artistic “texts” (not only literature, but also films, performances, music, the visual arts, etc.) is wrong: the assumption that meaning is contained in artistic or literary works. According to Fish, it’s not the novel that contains the plot; it’s the reader who creates it during the act of reading.

Fish’s critics have argued that reader-response theory means people can interpret any work to mean anything they want it to mean. In a sense, that’s true. Fish’s ideas allow the possibility that a reader could, say, glean the same meaning from The Color Purple as Mein Kampf, if that individual’s “interpretive strategies” — that is, how their culture, experiences, learning, interests, etc. have “taught” them to read — led them to do so. And, according to Fish, that wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, because no text has an inherent meaning.

But Fish does suggest that the likelihood for that ever happening is pretty nil. Despite his maverick theories, Fish isn’t necessarily an individualist. The entire history of literary criticism shows us that individuals interpret texts very differently, even within the same time period and geographic location. But most likely, their own personal interpretive strategies are shared by other people in the world who together form “interpretive communities.” And since interpretive strategies are culturally conditioned, people in your interpretive community likely have something in common with you. Since you’re reading Tiny Mix Tapes, for instance, you probably like Kid A and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea just like I do.

Fish laid out his ideas on reader-response in his Spring 1976 article in Critical Inquiry on the Milton Variorum Commentary, “Interpreting the Variorum.” Yes, a book of commentary and criticism on a long-canonized poet is a weird place to throw down an argument in favor of a whole new way of thinking about meaning and texts. But even weirder is that, in my view, Fish’s ideas are a lot more useful for thinking about bad movies than good poets.

Towards the end of his article, Fish wonders how, if we all create a text’s meaning ourselves, we can ever understand one another:

If everyone is continually executing interpretive strategies and in that act constituting texts, intentions, speakers, and authors, how can any of us know whether or not he is a member of the same interpretive community as any other of us?

Fish’s answer?

He can’t, since any evidence brought forward to support the claim would itself be an interpretation (especially if the “other” were an author long dead).

But anarchic subjectivism is a lonely place. And while Fish doesn’t say so outright, I get the feeling he realizes that if we can’t understand another person, whether they’re a friend or a long-dead author writing in a foreign language, there’s no point in having art. After all, in his closing observation, he provides a solution of sorts.

The only “proof” of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: “we know.” I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me.

Fish is writing about texts, not person-to-person interactions. But I feel more fellowship in a darkened theater with a snickering crowd of connoisseurs of filmic crap than I do during any other instance of textual interpretation. During a bad movie — and this, for me, is what distinguishes enjoyable bad films from enjoyable good ones — the nod of recognition isn’t coming from the screen, since the director most likely hasn’t mastered such subtle human interactions. Instead, it comes in the form of giggles from somewhere behind me, a wisecrack from some loud dude in the center of the theater, someone’s snoring. Sometimes it even comes in silence, when everyone’s too polite to pipe up, a shared smirk while heading back to the parking lot.

So while others bemoan what Hollywood churns out and wonder why some people have bad enough taste to still pay to see its excrement, I’ll be hoping that Skyline will pack the theater — but not so much that I can’t sneak a surreptitious sip — and knowing from the nods of recognition in the audience that everyone’s taste is just fine.

[Top illustration by K.E.T.; charts by Benjamin Pearson]

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(Return to the 2010 year-end map)

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