Grad Thoughts

Failure: Bad Movie Night

Bad Movie Night
By: Jason Rothery

 Jason Rothery is a second year PhD student whose doctoral research focuses on the intersection of narrative and play in new and old media alike. His research interests include product placement, codes and conducts of anonymity, and “ironic cinephilia.”

Bad movies are the lynchpin of my own infatuation with failure. Not just bad movies, but that special, rare breed of fiasco: films so bad they’re good. I consider myself a connoisseur, and am always on the lookout for best worst titles of rare and exquisite vintage. So devoted am I to the pursuit, that several friends and I occasionally congregate for a best worst double bill dubbed Bad Movie Night. BMN began when I confessed to a close friend that I really wanted to see Glitter, Mariah Carey’s risible, quasi-autobiographical rise-to-stardom feature film debut. Not wanting to squander the evening on one terrible title alone, we paired Carey’s abomination with Kim Basinger’s silly Sixth Sense knockoff Bless the Child. Thus, BMN — fourteen years long and still going strong — was born.

Remember the Olsen Twins-starring stab at Hollywood legitimacy, New York Minute? Seen it. Britney Spears’ one and only foray into feature filmdom, Crossroads? Been there. Nicholas Cage’s bear suit / bee mask fever dream The Wicker Man? Loved it. I stuck with the interminable Gigli to the bitter end. (Wherefore art thou, Bennifer?) Battlefield Earth, John Travolta’s febrile canted-angle love letter to Scientology founder (and erstwhile science fiction author) L. Ron Hubbard? In a theatre! (Albeit, this was a second-run multiplex with rear-projection screens so small you could fit them in a modest apartment living room.) Paul Verhoven’s disgusting, misogynistic, but impassioned Showgirls? I have a special edition DVD box set replete with shot glasses, drinking games, and something called “Pin the Pasties on the Showgirl,” which, obviously, the less said about the better. (Should I not have brought that up in the first place?) You need to know anything about M. Night Shamalyan’s The Last Airbender, or The Happening, or Lady in the Water? Drop me a line. My NetFlix Wish List is a bizarre-o mashup of documentaries, indies, critical darlings, and (prolific best worst director nonpareil Uwe Boll’s) In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds (having already seen In the Name of the King…).

My passion is, of course, also my shame. That Showgirls set lives in an especially dark corner on the upmost shelf in my closet. Despite efforts to expand the BMN coterie over the years, our dedicated core group is comprised of a mere three devotees. Most people that attend BMN don’t come back. We understand.

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“Paul Verhoven’s disgusting, misogynistic, but impassioned Showgirls? I have a special edition DVD box set…”

To be clear (and not to get defensive or anything), the BMN team is not in the market for your run-of-the-mill, bargain bin hack job. The (metaphoric) shelves are brimful with the merely bad. The BMN’s mandate is to discern the triflingly mediocre and/or somnambulant cash grab (here’s looking at you Lindsey Lohan’s I Know Who Killed Me) from the delightfully soul-sucking. Best worst movies aren’t only bad, they are exuberantly, unabashedly, incomprehensibly how-the-mighty-have-fallen / repent-all-ye-who-enter-here awful.

Accordingly, BMN is predicated on what I call the “Casablanca Principle.” Casablanca emerged from a troubled and beleaguered production process, as a startling number of successes do. In the introductory essay to Casablanca: Script and Legend, co-screenwriter Howard Koch describes the film as “conceived in sin and born in travail, it survived its precarious origin by some fortuitous combination of circumstances” (14). At the outset of shooting, only half the script was complete. “About two-thirds of the way through…it was a dead heat. I was getting the finished scenes down to the set on the morning they were to be shot” (18). Later: “The final weeks were a nightmare of which I remember only fragments” (20). As an artistically multifarious, technically intricate, and capital-intensive form of content production, how or why certain films cohere (much less become classics), or flounder and flop, is something of a mystery. BMN celebrates the stillbirths that sit at the other end of the spectrum: when circumstances do not so fortuitously combine. Thus, the preeminent BMN selection criterion is that the potential existed for a Casablanca, but instead we got Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star. (Notable exception: Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which, let’s face it, despite aspiring to Tennessee Williams-esque kitchen sink profundity, was never going to become Casablanca. I objected to programming The Room on principle. I was overruled.)

If what you really want to know is Why?!?, well, that’s a perfectly reasonable query. My real answer requires approximately three pints, so here’s the short version: I think that the flop is a kind of cracked mirror reflecting back our own flaws and imperfections, our misdeeds and mistakes, the unpredictability of our futures, and our persistent fear of (sometimes very public) failure. BMN is, in other words, indulgence in that old Grecian trope: catharsis. By laughing at failure, we laugh with failure; we laugh at and with ourselves and each other. So much hard work and effort — in vain! So much money — squandered! So it is with life. Bad Movie Night is an opportunity to claim control over the random, the unpredictable, the overarching vicissitudes of existence. Success is only so sweet because it emerges from so much failure.

It is heartening indeed to see failure come in for some long-overdue scholarly love. In The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Halberstam states succinctly the underlying contingency: “for someone to win, someone else must fail to win” (93). In How We Think, N. Katherine Hayles gently challenges Carey, observing that the telegraph was just as notable for its corroded wires and misconstrued codes than its space-and-time collapsing capabilities. Paul Virilio asserts that accidents aren’t aberrations, but immanent: “no technical object can be developed without in turn generating ‘its’ specific accident” (qtd. in Genosko 14). If we were to extend Virilio’s thesis to film, does the coherent film inhere the incoherent film? Does film as commodified cultural product (i.e. movies that make money) necessarily generate its antithesis: films that (sometimes spectacularly) lose money?

Want to probe these cultural fault lines with me? Swing over to my place at some point. Mordecai will be streaming soon enough…

References

  • Genosko, Gary. Remodeling Communication: From WWII to the WWW. Toronto: University of             Toronto Press, 2012. Print.
  • Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.
  • Koch, Howard. Casablanca: Script and Legend. New York: The Overlook Press, 1992. Print.
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