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Robert Altman Week

Thursday
Jul192012

« In Which Its Badness Is Thorough And Complex »

Compiled from the Minutes of the Bad Movie Club

by ALICE BOLIN

The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy...

— Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”

1. Beginning

July 2011. I found myself unemployed and temporarily homeless in Missoula, Montana, and I had to tap into what goodwill I had built up over the previous two years, bouncing from friend’s couch to friend’s couch for a month, repaying them intermittently with alcohol.

The Missoula summer is in its essence carefree and shiftless, and my friend Emily was letting me stay with her for a few days while her roommate was out of town, despite the fact that I am always randomly breaking her stuff — absentmindedly prying a part off of her computer, or, more horrifyingly, bumping the wine bottle she was drinking from on Halloween, chipping one of her teeth. She still welcomed me into her home, is what I’m getting at, because Emily is a good friend.

We had nothing to do but hang out, so we rented several movies one day, seeking specifically crappy romantic comedies. The first one we watched was a paragon of the genre: 2001’s Head Over Heels follows an art restorer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who has given up on men. She moves into an apartment with three fashion models and meet-cutes inexplicable heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. when his Great Dane sexually harasses her. Her boss at the museum walks into her workroom holding an enormous Titian painting and says, “Look at this piece of crap!” There is a disconcerting plot twist involving the international diamond smuggling business. At one point the models are hiding in a bathroom stall and they get sprayed with feces.

The rest of the time I spent at Emily’s house, we watched more bad movies, including Twilight and Whatever It Takes, an irredeemably boring early-00’s high school comedy starring James Franco and forgotten teen idol Shane West. In this way the Bad Movie Club was born. Over the course of the past year, Emily and I have watched more than twenty terrible movies, sometimes joined by the club’s associate members, Emma and Zoey. Watching things together has marked my friendship with Emily since we met — we are almost exactly the same age and we share remarkably overlapping cultural knowledge. Once, when talking about a mutual acquaintance, Emily said “She’s so Amaya,” and I knew immediately that she was referring to one of the roommates from The Real World: Hawaii. We revisited the runs of 2000s MTV classics Laguna Beach and The Hills as well as Ashlee Simpson’s incredible reality show, most of which (no need to thank me) is on YouTube.

But it wasn’t only mutual nostalgia that spawned the Bad Movie Club.  It was more importantly an appreciation of the good-bad. Not everyone likes bad things, which is something I accept but don’t completely understand. “Why don’t you and Alice just watch a good movie?” Emily’s boyfriend Brett asked her. It’s because the good and the bad hold completely different pleasures, and we consume them for different purposes.

2. Bad

Our interest in bad movies has nothing to do with the current conception of “irony”: liking things that are old, ugly, poorly made, or weird for the sake of novelty. Ironic appreciation is kindred to Susan Sontag’s notion of “Camp” as laid out in her essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” which “incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” She indicates that though “many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch,” in its essence, Camp as a point of view is generous. “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment,” she writes. We on the other hand do not strive to be generous. The mission of the Bad Movie Club is generally mean-spirited, taking joy in laughing at and making fun of other people’s terrible work. Bad movies are often very funny, and the comedy is stranger and more sublime than in something well made.

And watching a bad movie with someone else, there is none of the reverence that enforces silence during movie watching — you can talk all you want without fear of missing something, since the plot likely doesn’t make sense anyway. We do things with other people because we don’t want to do them alone, but sometimes the universe sends you the exact right person to do them with. And Emily is one of the sharpest and funniest people I have ever known.

We can imagine a good/bad graph to help conceptualize the selections of the Bad Movie Club. In the upper right quadrant is the good-good, movies that are both enjoyable and well made, which are obviously irrelevant to the club’s interests. In the bottom right there is the bad-good, films that are generally acclaimed but are in reality hackneyed, boring, or stupid. (NB: Most of the films that are nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards would fall into this category.) Since these movies are at best not fun to watch and at worst infuriating, they would never be featured in The Bad Movie Club. (Though time can convert bad-good to good-bad, see: Titanic.)

The sweet spot we are seeking is the top left quadrant, the good-bad, the kind of satisfying awfulness that Lifetime movies don’t even pretend not to be trading in. Frequent sources of the good-bad: films made for TV, films released directly to DVD, films made for and marketed to tweens, films from the 1980s, films from the 1990s, films about dancing, films starring Anna Faris. The Disney Channel is a great supplier of the good-bad, as all of its original movies have outlandish premises, star untalented child actors, feature an overall dorky/dipshit aesthetic, and appear to be made on budgets in the hundreds of dollars.

High School Musical may be the exemplar, with its doubly implausible conceits that the short and scrawny Zac Efron would be the star of his high school basketball team and Vanessa Hudgens would be some sort of chemistry genius. The two are star-crossed lovers, kept apart by high school’s tyrannical cliquishness—one of the songs is actually called “Stick to the Status Quo.” “I don’t think my high school was really cliquey like this,” Emma said while we were watching it. “Was your high school like this?” “Emma, everyone in this high school is singing and dancing,” we said.

Where to find bad movies: Netflix, obviously. In Missoula, there is also Hastings, a western chain of media megastores with a vaguely Christian-bookstore vibe and a huge selection of badly scratched DVDs and bizarre candies. I am also fond of buying movies off of the DVD rack at Albertson’s grocery store. In the fall when I had pneumonia I went to Albertson’s in a fevered stupor and bought a half dozen movies—some pretty good, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and some very bad, like The Power Rangers Movie and a late sequel to Bring It On called Bring It On: In It to Win It.

In It to Win It is roughly based on West Side Story and follows two competing cheerleading squads naturally called the Sharks and the Jets. It takes place at Universal Studios. A key moment is a late night “cheer rumble” in some old-timey part of the amusement park. One character is a goth cheerleader who wears a pair of fangs at all times. When I was sick I watched this movie with awed attention, and I remembered it as a strange, disturbing and wonderful experience. I was disappointed when Emily and I watched it later and it was actually tedious and absurd, in addition to clearly being of exclusive interest to people with experience in cheerleading. I had to admit it: some movies are so-bad-it’s-bad.

The bad-bad, found in the bottom left quadrant of the good/bad graph and comprising movies that are neither well made nor entertaining, is like a trap laid for the Bad Movie Club to fall into. It’s often obvious that a film will be bad from its premise, its DVD cover, the people starring in it — and most bad movies are a reliable delight to ridicule. But then you rent The Last Song, a Miley Cyrus vehicle written by Nicholas Sparks and featuring the same maudlin trope that has been employed to manipulate teenage girls from time eternal: cosmic true love complicated only by external factors, most importantly, cancer. Miley plays an unruly emo teenager-slash-piano prodigy who has just been sent back to live with her dad, Greg Kinnear, at his beach house. There are lots of meaningful shots of a piano she beat up with a baseball bat, because psychology.

She falls in love with a preppy pretty boy, played by Miley’s real-life fiancé Liam Hemsworth, who she meets on the boardwalk, there’s an entire subplot about them rescuing baby turtles, and, sorry for spoilers, Greg Kinnear dies of cancer.  There is one hilarious scene where Miley screeches along to Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved” and Liam Hemsworth is astonished (“She can sing, too!”), but generally The Last Song is an awful slog — slow, pointless, depressing. And how were we to know.

3. Camp

I said that the purpose of the Bad Movie Club is basically different from that of Sontag’s Camp, which “[finds] the success in certain passionate failures,” but that’s not completely true — in some movies we’ve watched and in the way we received them there is an element of Camp at play. Here I endeavor a hazy distinction between the basic good-bad and two other categories of bad movie, the campy and the beyond-bad. In “Notes on Camp,” Sontag differentiates between Camp and “just bad,” explaining that when something is just-bad “it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition.” This is helpful when considering specific Bad Movie Club films that, while terrible, have a certain grandness and their own kind of integrity, as if they are a complete vision: they seem to be pristine artifacts. I can think of no better example of this than Showgirls.

Following the rise and fall of Las Vegas exotic dancer Nomi Malone, Showgirls exhibits the quality of Camp that Sontag calls “seriousness that fails,” and that we might more simply call melodrama, in spades: its many dance sequences are dazzling and insane, and it is full of random, horrifying violence, like when Nomi’s best friend is gang-raped by a singer she idolized. Of course, it is also so rife with graphic nudity and sex that the word “gratuitous” doesn’t even apply, since it must be part of the film’s point — it is Sontag’s “stag film seen without lust,” one of the most overtly pornographic non-porn movies ever made, and it is not even remotely sexy.

Camp is likeable: although generally in the Bad Movie Club we are not seeking the good in the bad, but rather the bad in the bad — it’s funnier that way — there are some movies we have watched that, somewhat by accident, we like. One is The Crush, in which Alicia Stone plays a fourteen-year-old version of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction — she uses wasps to attack the girlfriend of the man she is obsessed with (wasps!). Sontag says of specimens of pure Camp, “in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy — and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.” This extreme quality, some sincere ridiculousness, makes campy movies a little better than bad — or lets them transcend these classifications altogether, as in Sontag’s words, Camp “turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment.”

The beyond-bad seems related, although it is not Camp for important reasons: it can involve melodrama, but it most often lacks the sincerity and enthusiasm of Camp. And films that are beyond-bad are notable mostly for their extreme place on the “good-bad axis,” so it is unlikely that they would ever transcend it—they are only enjoyable insofar as one can note and comment on their badness, but insofar as one can do that, they can be extremely enjoyable. These are films that are so ill-conceived that their very existence is, in short, confusing.

There is Mac and Me, an unfortunate rip off of E.T. where the main innovations are that the child who befriends the alien is in a wheelchair, and the alien is icky rather than adorable. The movie promotes Coca-Cola and McDonalds in a way that feels pathological, and there is a jarring five-minute dance sequence at a McDonalds featuring Ronald McDonald in his first film role. I think also of Gigli: some movies are such infamous disasters, and then you watch them, and they are as dreadful as you could have ever hoped.

In Gigli, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are untalented gangsters who have kidnapped a mentally challenged man, and Ben Affleck falls for Jennifer Lopez even though she is a lesbian, and if you could not guess from this synopsis, it is offensive to the mentally challenged and to lesbians. One hallmark of movies this bad is that they are indescribable: I can recount the most ludicrous scenes, but that would not communicate how pervasive the badness is. But I will tell you that in one scene Ben Affleck breaks a teenager’s laptop and shouts “Suck my dick dot com!”

But no movie the Bad Movie Club has watched epitomizes this indescribable quality like The Room. I remember distinctly when Emily texted to ask if I’d ever seen The Room — I had never heard of it, and she told me it was a very weird, famously bad movie, which is really the only helpful description of it. Later, in her living room, I looked on with horror as just seven minutes in, the film launched in to one of the most patently un-erotic sex scenes I’ve ever seen. “Oh yeah,” Emily said, and I thought she was going to say something to reassure me. “There are like three more sex scenes. And they’re all really long.”

Things only get more deranged from there, but to write precisely how would take volumes. The Room is possibly the worst movie of all time, and no detail I would provide could give a full picture of why — Entertainment Weekly called it “The Citizen Kane of bad movies,” and its badness is thorough and complex. The plot looks flat, if a bit overwrought on the page: it is a psychological drama about a virtuous man and his duplicitous fiancé; she cheats on him with his best friend, eventually driving him the man to suicide. Many of its funniest lines — “Oh hi, Mark;” “You think about everything” — are completely neutral out of context. The allure of The Room is concentrated in its writer/director/star, Tommy Wiseau, an obvious maniac with a lilting Eastern European accent (though he claims he was born in New Orleans) who has the look of an aged body builder with caveman hair.

Emily and I have watched The Room together three times, and it remains as inexplicable as ever. New wonders await with each revisit, lines we previously missed that are like perfect golden nuggets — e.g. “As far as I’m concerned, you can drop off the earth. That’s a promise.” It is the icon and the apex of The Bad Movie Club, and it’s the film I like best. The Room is not only good-bad; it’s the best bad.

4. End

The Missoula summer is here again, and I’ve been looking listlessly at the dry hot sky, and it’s just as big as they would have you believe. Summer is the time when I wonder most about friendship, since it is when I am most surrounded by friends, idyllically, barbequing against a genial mountain backdrop and inner tubing on the Clark Fork, the big, calm river that flows through the center of town.

Summer is also when friends start to leave. Post-adolescent life is essentially transient: there’s the morbid sense that you could go anywhere and do anything, and your friends are always leaving you for grad school, for jobs, for romance, for no reason. Emily moved to Iowa at the beginning of July, and it’s left me with a lot of time to think. When someone you spent almost every day with is suddenly gone, it becomes clear that friendship is to an extent about occupying time — a kind of entertainment.

And most people’s company is at least minimally enjoyable. Missoula’s most famous poet, Richard Hugo, once wrote of “some wretched town/Where friendship is based on just being around,” but in truth, every town is that town — friendship is proximity, and our friends are restricted to the people we could possibly know. We take what we can get. It is the mystery central to friendship that amid all the luck involved, and with the fact that most of us would rather hang out with just anyone than no one, at so many points in life we chance to meet the best people, people we couldn’t love more.

As I float down the Clark Fork this month, I stare abstractly at the trees, the birds, the water, the sun, and I’m thinking about Frank Ocean and Pretty Little Liars and Magic Mike, pieces of pop culture as far removed from the river’s natural glory as its gets, an escape from the escape. And when I get off the river, I will probably have a new text message or two from Emily about Pretty Little Liars, our recent mutual bad-TV obsession—not about her road trip to the Midwest, or her family, or her feelings, or her life.

Enjoying the same culture for the same reasons — like mutually seeking the bad in bad movies—is another kind of lucky proximity: what a person likes doesn’t necessarily say anything about who a person is, how good or how bad, how worthy or unworthy. But for two people to be friends, they have to have something to talk about. I am reminded of Camp’s neutrality in regards to content in Sontag: the ideas that a work is “about” are arbitrary and the way those ideas are expressed are paramount, because Camp is crucially a way to enjoy art, whether high or low, good or bad.

Friendship is neutral to content: as a medium it isn’t about anything. It is a vessel that can be filled with whatever, and maybe the more whatever that whatever is, the better. Two people can cultivate a lot of closeness when they meet on neutral ground: a movie, a joke, a mountain town, a text message, a Dairy Queen, a day off, all the things that life doesn’t seem to be but is. There’s so much I can’t say simply to Emily about how much I miss her, so let’s not talk about it, let’s keep talking.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Mr. Bones" - Tiny Victories (mp3)

"Gravitron" - Tiny Victories (mp3)

The latest release from the Brooklyn band Tiny Victories is Those Of Us Still Alive, which you can purchase here.

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    Football is genuinely one particular of the biggest sports in America. It has a important following.
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Very cute.
July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHilda Raz
TITANIC IS GOOD-GOOD.
July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

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