Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bad, Bad Movies

Tonight is the 87th Academy Awards ceremonies, where all of the glamor and glitter and cocaine-off-of-the-backs-of-commodes all concentrate in one place, so average Americans can watch rich people give other rich people awards.

Of course, let's not forget the bad movies as well as the good.

A lot of people have a fascination with bad films. At first glance, it seems weird--who would voluntarily watch something horrible? But I think a lot of people look at a final product and realize that thousands of people worked on it, and not one of them stepped up and said "Wait a second, what the hell are we doing here?"

There's also the type of bad movie to look at: some movies are "so bad, they're good" and then there are just bad movies, and finding that nearly invisible line between the two can be a challenge.

Granted, there are different types of bad movies:

  • Movies where there is a failure on all fronts. Production values are bad, casting is atrocious, and the writing makes no sense. You actually don't see this happening all that much anymore; at the very least on the production value standards technological costs are so low even the barest of budgets can get decent props, sets, and cameras. Gone are the days of things like Plan 9 From Outer Space where they were literally grabbing junk from random places just to put on a show. Still, there's enough stuff out there were naive or unprofessional directors straight up can't get their act together. 
  • Movies where the genres are mixed. This might be a thriller that also tries to be a romantic comedy, or an action flick that tries to make a political point, or a historical drama that tries to reinvent history to appeal to a modern audience. It's not impossible to pull off, and when it does it's brilliant, but it's very difficult. You'll also see a lot of people see this work once--and then all copycat attempts to duplicate that success are garbage.
  • Movies with an acting misfire. These often star perfectly capable actors and actresses that either can't quite pull off what the writers and directors are trying to do, or the actor is branching out into a genre they just aren't going to fit in with.
  • Intentionally bad movies. These are often horror movies or gross-out comedies,where the bad writing, situations, and productions values are done with a wink at the audience.
  • Finally, there are movies that are just a mess. These are the most common nowadays, where the production values and budget are average-to-high, it has a lot of big names, there's a large cadre of directors, writers, studio representatives, and money men involved--everybody who has a stake in the movie are all there, and not one of them steps back and thinks that it's a bad movie. The badness of the movie is amplified by the fact that these are all professional people with huge budgets and all sorts of talent at their fingertips, and they still produce a complete pile of trash. And so it gets wide distribution and a huge marketing campaign and then audiences hate it and it becomes the subject for ridicule. 
This last one, in my opinion, is the most fascinating. There's probably a part of it that enjoys the fact that big, powerful people get embarrassed by something they think is great. But another part of it is just the fact that the power structure of Hollywood is so farcically out of touch that no one can say "This is a bad movie" without there being repercussions. If you're an underling telling a big-name director that he is creating a bad movie, that's a one-way ticket to not working in Hollywood anymore. If you're the executive who expresses reservations about a project, you're painted as a betrayer.

There are a lot of poster children for this sort of thing. Heaven's Gate, directed by Michael Cimino, is probably the most notorious, mostly because it had actual repercussions in the culture of Hollywood. If you are unfamiliar, the story is about the Johnson County War in Wyoming between land owners and immigrants. This was during the days in which New Hollywood reigned. When a large number of director-driven (as opposed to studio-driven) movies became smash hits in the 60s and 70s and easily became the "future" of moviemaking, studios adapted, giving directors a huge amount of money, resources, and leeway in how they wanted to make their movies. It produced a lot of classic movies, such as The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, and Apocalypse Now. But like most things, directors became more and more demanding and more and more difficult, and the returns on the movies were beginning to make less and less money.  

Heaven's Gate was the final straw: it cost $44 million to make (swelling from its original $12 million budget) and ended up making a paltry $3.5 million. It bankrupted United Artists (or, rather, they were bought out before that could happen) and destroyed Cimino's reputation, which had been on the rise after the Best Picture-winning The Deer Hunter. It ended that era of Hollywood, and studios quickly took control back from directors and managed their movies (and budgets) more closely.

The thing is, the movie isn't bad, really--the acting is capable, the production values are decent, and it's not unwatchable. And yet it is a bad movie, because it's eminently boring, there's no reason to want to actually sit down and watch it, and to see all of the talent being poured into such a huge undertaking just baffles most people. And this is the sort of thing that happens most frequently now--while there's a lot of bad writing and bad acting and bad ideas still being produced in Hollywood, there's at lease some sort of quality control to make sure it's not something like a bad 60's sci-fi flick with set pieces falling down and actors who are their brother's chiropractor.

Still, there's plenty of bad stuff to go around. I recently saw The Room, which defies all description and fits none of the categories above. It's the sort of thing that's entirely enjoyable to watch and yet is clearly a bad movie. The actors are all capable if mediocre--except for the star, Tommy Wiseau, whose broken English and over-the-top acting and complete disregard for inflection and timing come across as laughable. The main plot of the movie--a guy whose friends, one by one, betray him--isn't bad, except that none of the plot makes sense, dozens of subplots are introduced and immediately forgotten, and weird scenes depicting things that no one in the history of the world has even done (like throwing a football back and forth while jogging) make the entire experience seem like a bad fever dream.

Anyway, when watching the Oscars tonight (or, like me, reading about it on Monday), just take a moment to remember all of the horrible, horrible movies that these same people also made.


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