24 March 2006

On Bad Films

"Mommy? Where do bad movies come from?"

Well, darling, like bad people, bad movies are made. Now, I happen to love bad movies—many of my friends will attest, and my boyfriend will object, that I will watch anything. As a firm believer in the idea that you can learn how to do things "correctly" by studying things you, and others, admire, not only do I think the converse holds true, but I also say you can even learn how to do cool things by looking at films, or other cultural objects, that went terribly terribly terribly awry. This is really a roundabout way of saying that if you study how things work, and examine their effects, whether it is "good" or not, doesn't necessarily matter.

Let's go back to "bad." Rather than accept that that this one word accurately describes a whole host of films, I submit the uncontroversial hypothesis that there are many kinds of bad films. A whole spectrum, in fact. We round up the usual suspects: "Plan 9 from Outer Space," say, or "Ishtar," or "Valley of the Dolls," or "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," or, what is to me the most reprehensible in this list, "You've Got Mail." The list is as long as you might like to make it, and will be different for everyone, as I have no doubt that there a number of admirers of the late Ephron oeuvre reading this. I'm not really interested in splitting hairs over personal taste; my point is that there's a common sense notion of film badness out there, and most of us share opinions—many of them received, sure—about which films are supposed to be bad.

An Ironic Excusion
Here's where we get into a glitch. At this historical point in American mainstream culture, there is a powerful factor that muddles what have traditionally been, I think, clearer cut notions of quality and the ways we engage with the "bad," and we call that factor irony. We live in a world where taking an ironic stance about something—anything, everything?—is a pop cultural article of faith. Irony used to be the tool of the educated and urbane, and therefore, often, of the upper classes and of urban places. Ducking into a brief history of Irony, we learn it is a figure of classical Rhetoric derived from the Greek word, eironeia, which means "affectation of ignorance" (NOTE: I ripped off the following examples from the link, they are not mine, but I did study this stuff in school. Honest). Following this cunningly simple source, we are given a definition: "Speaking in such a way as to imply the contrary of what one says, often for the purpose of derision, mockery, or jest." This sounds closer to what we're used to hearing when Irony is in the room. Yet, if we dig a little deeper, because this is Rhetoric, a more nuanced taxonomy has been derived down, and that means, Figures of Rhetoric, such as Irony, have related Figures depending from them, the Figures for Irony are:

antiphrasis: From the Gk. "to express by antithesis or negation." Defined: "Irony of one word, often derisively through patent contradiction; e.g. Referring to a tall person: "Now there's a midget for you."

paralipsis: From the Gk, "to leave to one side." Defined: "Stating and drawing attention to something in the very act of pretending to pass it over"; e.g. "It would be unseemly for me to dwell on Senator Kennedy's drinking problem, and too many have already sensationalized his womanizing...."

epitrope: From the Gk, "to yield." Defined: "A figure in which one turns things over to one's hearers, either ironically, or in such a way as to suggest a proof of something without having to state it. Epitrope often takes the form of granting permission (hence its Latin name, permissio), submitting something for consideration, or simply referring to the abilities of the audience to supply the meaning that the speaker passes over. Epitrope can be either biting in its irony, or flattering in its deference"; e.g. "Because all things [be] taken away, only is left unto me my body and mind. These things, which only are left unto me of many, I grant then to you and to your power. —R. Sherry." Clearly, this example of epitrope is one where the permission isn't given with much of a choice.

sarcasmus: From the Gk, "to tear flesh, to speak bitterly." Defined: "Use of mockery or verbal taunts"; e.g. like when those impolite Romans said to Christ on the cross: "If you be the son of God, descend from the cross —Matt. 27."

mycterismus: From the Gk, "to sneer." Defined: "It is a mock given with an accompanying gesture, such as a scornful countenance"; e.g. as in telling a misbehaving guest as they leave, "We're SO GLAD you came," with a kind of sneery-smile.

What all of these figures share is the element of negation; each case makes a surface statement that is undermined, mediated, or called into question by the way it's phrased, by a gesture, or the inclusion of an out-of-place contradictory word that can be frivolously ridiculous (tall person as a midget), or contain a derisive meaning as well, relating maybe to his failed performance in business or sex.

But for irony to become a good commodity in common discourse, all those Rhetorical Figures are forgotten, and a streamlined model of irony comes off the assembly line, and that line is the mass media. We can imagine Oscar Wilde as being the godfather of this irony as he played intricate games that seemed frivolous but did so with a high degree of seriousness. But it wasn't until mass media became televisual that this irony—which is a kind of "having on," a dubiousness, a mock, and a maintaining of two frames of mind or reference—was truly produced for and became a part of the masses. The Prometheus that delivered this fire to mortals was our very own Andy Warhol, through his low-art-as-high-art aesthetic (among other things). But more than that, he presented his whole persona and project—stuff that, like Wilde, he took greatly seriously—as silly, meaningless, and empty. The joke was on the viewer or the culture if one decided to believe his shenanigans. It also allowed him to get away with a great deal: were his silk screens clever comments on our culture of reproduction? did they play on the sense that people are things? that ugly photographs of car crashes can be screened with colors to make them go with the couch? or was his art only empty but hip "pop"? Warhol doesn't need to have invented The New Irony, but he certainly practiced it very well, and a lot of people noticed this (I think, by the way, that Warhol was very sophisticated in the ways he employed his ironic stance: the quality of the thing when it's introduced is always different from what it becomes to be more easily disseminated). Furthermore, his Factory produced films and rock groups, which played this irony out into larger audiences outside the art world. "Walk on the Wild Side" is a perfect example of droll ironic shrugging about drag queens, street people, and urban ennui with a great pop hook. We can include the punk aesthetic in this mini-history, but the next big shift happened with MTV and its wild popularity. Suddenly, a New York style of sarcastic hipness was everywhere, and after that you eventually have "Seinfeld" and "Friends." I'm skipping many many steps, but the upshot is that this irony is a much more powerful—and less risky—stance to have toward the world than sincerity (not that I'm holding up sincerity as a better option), and it's deeply embedded in the culture now. Everywhere you look, and I mean primarily in popular culture, there is a smart-ass quip or phrase announcing itself as the next bon mot. I submit Maxim magazine: reading it you get the impression that the editors are making fun of even the things they like. Does this mean that we're all more sophisticated now than our forebears? Yes, I think, yes and no. In the same way more people are literate now than ever before, our use of irony and that double-mindedness which it denotes is more sophisticated; but on the other hand, we're not exactly Oscar Wilde, either.

Back to Bad Movies
I told you that story to tell you this one: so now, taking on the question of a "bad" movie has become rather moot, because everyone likes bad movies now. There is certainly a generational barrier that keep some people over 50 or 60 out of the loop, and you have another cultural resistance in smaller towns, or "Red" states, with people who don't watch TV, go to the movies often, or read lad mags. And then, the best thing is that Hollywood hasn't entirely gotten on board with the new irony, because it is blinded in its pursuit of the test-marketed blockbuster: the film that will appeal to as many people as possible. Yes, we see the release of other, smaller kinds of movies that have no intention of making $100 million the opening weekend, but by and large Hollywood hasn't fully realized that its big money making scheme isn't working (or very cost-effective). Instead, they hire people like Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon, and Carrie Fisher to add some zippy dialogue, but it's just another checkbox on the Blockbuster checklist, and while their aesthetical-financial obsession should give us hope for "bad" movies we can enjoy ironically, the results tend to be pretty bland.

Back in the Golden Age before mass-produced irony, no one even knew about "Plan 9 from Outer Space" unless he caught it on "The Late Late Show" or "Creature Double Feature." And the ones who didn't find it incoherent and boring decided it was funny, which is what Tim Burton did. And so a few "bad" movies, by way of a specialized audience were reinvented as "cult" films, a term that has the odor of weird fringiness about it, and that odor is the scent of marijuana. It was the dropouts, freaks, stoners, and funny bachelor men who were members of the various cults surrounding certain films, because who else had time to stay up for the late show or watch "Doctor Tongue's 3-D House of Stewardesses" on weekday or Saturday afternoons when Mr and Mrs America were at work or ironing? College students were the next wave, and why not? It's just another feature of rebelling against your parents by deciding the movies Mom and Dad think are bad, are actually trippy, interesting, or just plain funny.

I Didn’t Mean Anything by It
This is where I come in (did you really think this wasn’t about me at some point?). I am not a fan of The New Irony—I mean, sure it can be fun and all, but often it comes off as a reflex reaction of smug knowingness, a joyless exercise. I had a professor in grad school who wrote in one of his books that “the skeptic annihilates the world” (an always haunting phrase) and, in my opinion, The New Irony contains an irreducible kernel of skepticism. It isn’t a gesture of solidarity with an audience, or it doesn’t need to be. As opposed to a lie, which depends on the ignorance of the audience or listener, Rhetorical irony only functions when the listener also has knowledge; with The New Irony, no audience is necessarily even necessary. Just you. With Rhetorical irony, there is a space or a gap between what is said and what is meant, but there is an intention behind it, and a meaning, that despite its ambiguity is still meaningful; the New Irony believes in nothing, and therefore is about playing a game without a goal. So, the fact that bad movies and bad TV and bad fashion are valued for their hipness is a reliable index, not of nothing exactly, but of nothingness. It is an empty play of signs, signals, and signifiers, wherein the action of arrangement is the art, but to no discernable intentional effect, except, let us say, to be noticed, to register. It is as though an impatience with meaning itself (or even a radically antisentimental stance towards meaning) has supported this shift, this play that somehow has no rules, and no seriousness at all; therefore The New Irony becomes almost pure gesture or style. I know this paragraph is riddled with judgments, and while I engage in The New Irony myself sometimes, just like you, what I’m trying to state here is a preference. I’m old fashioned, and I don’t mind it.

Sometimes You Have to Be Bad
I still like to think of cult movies, mistakes, and trash as "bad." To name something as bad is to locate it someplace, perhaps not a precice location, but one nonetheless, whereas to relate to a film by way of The New Irony is to locate it no place, exactly. Rather than view a bad film by way of an I-know-better ironic agenda, I try to take it for what the "film" seems to be trying to do—and let me say that can get you into some pretty strange neighborhoods. Somebody set out to make these things, and that's more interesting to me than “enjoyment” served up with a condescending ironic twist—I guess what I mean is, you have to take these films seriously on some level. Besides, anything that disappoints, offends, baffles, or bores mainstream tastes is something I want to see. And a lot of these films are bad because they were made by freaks with no budget and a bad handle on production; others are just trashy B—or even C movies—where the plot is only a pretext for getting as many big breasted women with guns on screen as possible. But the holiest of bad films are the ones that were made with a budget, a certain amount (sometimes a lot) of expertise, a recognized if not respectable cast, a lot of pre-release publicity, and the utmost desire to make a really great movie. But either because of the material and the way it was handled, or just some crazy cinematic curse, each person from the director to the screenwriter to the star to the grip and the best boy made the wrong choice at every step of the way, and this created an impossible crystalline-like structure that a creative team could never hope to accomplish on purpose. It just happens. And all the audience can do is gape in disbelief at the embarrassment of otherworldly riches on display. The three timeless examples of this sort of movie magic are, of course, "Valley of the Dolls," "Mommie Dearest," and "Showgirls." If you've never seen them, or you aren't in the ten-plus club yet, you'd better get your freak on and take care of it, because some things really do make living better.

Why am I not writing for the New Yorker?

1 comment:

Arie said...

*....* = ironic negative space.

That was a great read, thank you. In regards to Showgirls, I believe that the director, Paul Verhoeven, did not stumble or make mistakes. I think he created that beast of a film just the way he wanted it. I bet you a dollar that he wanted the audience to leave the cinema in gaping confusion, or horror.

Ok, my two bobs worth:
What I want to know about are films with ironic negative space: that is, the audience are left to fill the gaps. This is a tricky one as through the years, audience perceptions change and therefore the blanks that are filled within cinematic negative space have different meaning to let's say, from one generation to the other, or one culture to another. Lets take for example a film by Stanley Kubrick called Barry Lyndon. Now, this film is undoubtedly ironic, yet it's filled with blank spaces, sparse dialogue, all to keep the audience guessing, interpreting or misinterpreting, (Can an audience misinterpret?), to get the audience to work; to think for themselves. Truth is audience interpretation of blank, or filled spaces are never wrong as each individual have their own slanted perspective of an event, a moment in time. Many films today don’t leave gaps, moments, negative spaces, so that the audience can think and interpret themselves. It’s as if the directors, producers, marketing people, etc are terrified of having a bored audience, or are they petrified that the gaps filled will be counter to their intentions. Audiences are not stupid, they are very media savvy, and when required can use their own imagination to fill the gaps.

Does this make sense.