Before I move on to my consideration of 1942, please indulge me with a week or two of a new series. Since I took on the movies that caused me the most pain, frustration, and all around wonkiness , I decided it would be appropriate to consider the flip side of the coin. No, I don’t mean my favorite movies of all time. The movies in the last post are so bad that the best movies would be on an entirely different coin altogether – it’s the difference between that old brown penny that has been stuck to the bottom of your car’s cup holder in a gooey mess from spilled Coke and a shiny new gold dollar piece. I’m talking about movies that are terrible, but through some strange voodoo, turn out to be immensely enjoyable.
They are often called movies “so bad that they’re good,” but I’ve never felt comfortable using that term. It implies that there is a line of value and if you follow it down lower in quality it will eventually wrap around and rejoin the great movies like Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, and Greed. I reject the idea that there are movies so bad that they out-maneuver standard measures of worth. Bad movies are bad movies.
These movies are bad, some frankly terrible, but they aren’t enjoyable because they’re bad. We don’t relish the technical incompetence, lousy performances, and amateurish writing. They are enjoyable in spite of their badness. If that seems like a fine line consider an examples from, naturally, a film.
In The Producers Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel hatch a plot to put on the worst show on Broadway, a show so bad it will close sometime during intermission, so they coax gullible old women into investing more money than the show needs and pocket the extra money. They choose a terrible script, one that glamorizes and valorizes Hitler, then go on to hire an incompetent director and clueless actors. The show goes on to become a hit because the audience mistakes what’s awful about the show for comedy. The audience mistook the intention, but appreciated the effect. Springtime for Hitler turned out to be hilarious because it could be read more than one way.
That is the case with these movies, the movies that are terrible, but watchable and rewatchable. And, like Springtime for Hitler, the filmmakers were aiming for the bulls eye, but though a fortuitous nexus of incompetence and inspiration, they hit the picture of David Beckham next to the dartboard and it was a whole lot funnier.
So for the nest week or two I will post essays onrotten movies I love, leading up to my favorite bad movie of all time. But first, one of my favorite bad movies of recent years:
Southland Tales (2006) Dir. Richard Kelly
Sarah Michelle Geller and Dwayne Johnson in "Southland Tales"
This is one of those gargantuan messes so utterly disconnected from any sense of logic, proportion, history, social awareness, cultural consciousness, or theological grammar, that you can’t help but watch with equal measures of disbelief, amusement, shock, and respect. Richard Kelly showed a lot of promise with the morosely stylish Donnie Darko in 2001, but somewhere between the thoughtful artistry of that movie and Southland Tales Kelly appears to have lost his mind. Thankfully he is talented enough to make his disaster entrancing. Here’s the trailer:
If it looks awesome, it is. About all I can say for sure is the movie takes place in Los Angeles in the near future. I think—and to be honest I couldn’t swear to any of this – the movie is about an amnesiac movie star in played by Dwayne Johnson who goes missing and shacks up with a porn star (Sarah Michelle Geller) and together they write a screenplay about the end of the world that turns out to be uncannily prescient. He doesn’t know, however, that he’s engaged to a right wing Senator’s daughter (Mandy Moore) who is desperate to get him back without embarrassing her father’s political fortunes. Meanwhile a radical Marxist group (populated with a cadre of Saturday Night Live alums) plots against the proto-fascist state that the Bush era would have left us with had there been more terrorist attacks. And Wallace Shawn is a creepy scientist building something that is supposed to be revolutionary. And Miranda Richardson, doing her best evil queen routine, plays that right wing Senator’s wife who is in charge of a new agency that watches everything and everyone. Then there’s a policeman who has a double and Justin Timberlake plays a disillusioned Iraq war hero who overlooks everything from the Santa Monica pier, pushes a new drug called Liquid Karma, and pops in for a disjointed (but not unenjoyable) musical interlude. I’m getting exhausted writing about it, but take a look at Timberlake:
If you think the plot is a mess (and I’m exhausted typing it out), you have to admire Kelly’s audacity. Many of us bemoan modern movies; they are uncreative, derivative, mechanical. At least Kelly had the balls to try for the bleachers at a time when so many are just hoping to lay down a bunt. He’s so ballsy that he starts the movies somewhere in the middle of the story, just plopping us in with little reference. He wrote three graphic novels that begin the story and apparently we’re supposed to read the novels before or after or something to fill in the holes. (I haven’t bothered.) The movie itself has some great scenes and some laugh-out-loud moments (including a botched fake shooting between Amy Poehler and Wood Harris). Dwayne Johnson’s performance is so bad that we have to wonder if it’s intentional (though, sadly, I suspect it isn’t). You can catch glimpses of it in the trailer.
In the end we get what so many filmmakers who mistake themselves for intellectuals give us (think Godard or Resnais): stylish exercises that say more about the filmmaker’s ego than anything about life, love, philosophy, theology, society, culture, or the price tea in India. But I love Kelly’s visual and aural style. He knows how to use music, editing, and camera movement to create a great sequence. He takes the best of music video directing and integrates it into a feature narrative film. And I think that’s great. The more a director can do without dialogue is much more effective than wordy explanations. He excites my cinematic senses even in a confused movie like Southland Tales.
Audiences, even those who were charmed by the cult status of Darko, agreed. The $17 million dollar film didn’t even break one million dollars at the box office worldwide. Many who did see it reacted against its sensory overload, while I ended up embracing it. Again, it’s as empty-headed as any other trashy movie, though Richard Kelly might not know it. I suppose this is meant to be some sort of expansion on the time travel musings of Donnie Darko, but what felt fresh in that movie feels stale and gimmicky five years later. I wasn’t left pondering the mysteries of time and space. All I was left with was this question: What the hell is Kelly’s fascination with time travel? It’s paradoxical. We get it. Move on.