As a follow-up of sorts to my recent Filmwell piece discussing the badness (or lack therof) of Manos: The Hands of Fate and similar movies, I’d like to point you towards this recent Wired editorial by Zack Carlson that seeks to destroy the myth of “so bad, they’re good” movies. Carlson is a programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse, which has gained a reputation over the years for finding and promoting long-forgotten “cult” films.
Carlson argues that our increased access to, and control over, media via technology has given rise to “an ugly, potentially lethal epidemic of irony.” He writes:
Somewhere in the dark pit of our recent past, the point-and-laugh became an international pastime. Before then, movies — like music and books — had been assessed by their quality, and ultimately designated as being worthwhile or not. No one read best-selling romance novels to mock the plot structure, and no one listened to disco for giggles. People found things they liked and devoted themselves to their favorites, warts and all.
Then, in the shadows between the VHS shelves and late-night cable, it was no longer enough to simply dislike a movie based on its stunted performances or budgetary shortcomings. Viewers began indulging in a perceived superiority over their entertainment; it had to be derided, pointed out as a failure and roundly ridiculed.
However, if people really are that critical of supposed “bad” movies, then why, Carlson asks, “do we revisit them again and again to the point that we know them better than any revered screen classic?” Here, he touches on something that I briefly discussed in my Manos piece: sometimes these crappy, Z-grade movies are admirable and even watchable, not because of the talent (or lack thereof) on display, but because of the passion and heart that you can sense behind whatever’s happening on the screen.
For his “Exhibit A”, Carlson uses Miami Connection, a 1987 film directed by Tae Kwan Do master (and inspirational speaker) Y.K. Kim that focuses on the exploits of Dragon Sound, a martial arts rock band waging war on Miami’s drug-dealing ninja scourge. The film is currently doing a limited theatre run and will be released on DVD/Blu-ray later this year, and by all accounts, it’s a true psychotronic cheese-fest. Carlson notes a particular phenomena that manifests itself amongst audiences who watch the film.
I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Miami Connection with an audience several times, including during Alamo Drafthouse’s annual genre-film bash Fantastic Fest. In every case, their chuckles and sneers quickly gave way to thrilled gasps and very genuine cheers. Attendees exploded in applause at the closing credits and left the theater punching, kicking and chanting the lyrics to Dragon Sound‘s unforgettable ’80s anthems.
In that initial moment, irony is temporarily suspended, exchanged for a deep, unguarded appreciation for Miami Connection. Eventually, some of the viewers resume their detached composure and begin needling the movie’s era-appropriate hairstyles and technology. But it’s too late. For those few glowing seconds, they’d let down their defenses and allowed themselves to really, truly, honestly enjoy something.
As a fan of MST3K-worthy movies — and someone who is definitely hoping to catch Miami Connection sooner rather than later — I’m sympathetic to Carlson’s argument: “If a movie entertains us, then it’s good.” I’m hesitant to take his argument too far, though, because I also believe there are more important cinematic virtues than entertainment. Unless you define “entertains” in the broadest sense possible, I’d argue that a not insignificant portion of the great movies are far from entertaining in the sense that Carlson seems to be using in his piece. Rather, they’re often challenging, troubling, disturbing, and not exactly the sort of cinematic fare that causes one to leave the theatre punching, kicking, and chanting — but they’re no less rewarding for lacking such effect.
Having said all that, I do appreciate Carlson’s discussion of the filmmaker’s impact on these sorts of evaluations. Which explains why I can’t really consider movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Plan 9 From Outer Space to be truly bad. When Carlson describes Plan 9 From Outer Space as a movie “made by a handful of arduous, dedicated friends under the guidance of a penniless, uniquely untalented visionary,” I know precisely what he’s talking about, and it causes me to think all the more fondly of the movie. As I wrote in my Manos piece:
And yet, a certain awkward charm shines through all of those things. Much like Plan 9 From Outer Space, another “worst movie of all time” contender, you end up admiring the filmmakers’ pluck. Or at least, having some pity on them. They were so obviously in over their heads and yet — call it “perseverance”, “dedication”, “stubbornness”, or what have you — they went out and made an honest to God movie, darn it. Considering how easy it is these days to make a movie with an iPhone and a YouTube account, that’s got to count for something, right?
I believe it does, and sometimes, that sense of pluck and audacity — that willingness to “fail while daring greatly” as one of the commenters on Carlson’s article put it — can help endear a movie to our hearts and minds and lift it above mere “so bad it’s good” status. The presence of a ninja-fighting martial arts rock band certainly doesn’t hurt, though.
Armond White comments that Stillman’s singular interest in character “reveals each one’s moral quest. The effort to behave decently, even by the most eccentric (self-serving) standards, gives Stillman’s upperclass stories a surprising kick and a fine grain.” It is marvelous to see these moral quests extend beyond the confines of a single movie, as a handful of familiar characters in fascinating variations are stripped of superficial childhood securities to make their slow, stumbling journeys toward grace.