Wednesday, April 05, 2006

In praise of bad movies


Continuing my Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon day, I'm going to discuss "bad movies". To some people, Roger Corman is synonymous with bad movies, and, as I said below, not without reason. Somehow, making several great movies and vastly more wonderfully entertaining movies is completely undercut by having made a few that didn't meet either standard. I can't make that math work in my head, no matter how I go about it.

I do know this, if a Genie popped out for me and said, "I will make your greatest dream come true. Over the next five years, you will make 25 complete feature length movies. All will show in movie theaters for paying customers. All will be financially successful for you. You will work with actors who will go on to be huge money making stars, the most acclaimed actors of their time and dedicated and well-respected character actors. You will work in a wide variety of genres with varying degrees of artistic success. But... You've read The Monkey's Paw, Neil, you know there's a but. Unfortunately, in thirty years some of those movies will be shown on national television being made fun of by wisecrackin' robots."

Honestly, my choice is clear. In fact, if that dumb ol' Genie had listed the wisecrackin' robots on the plus side, I don't think I'd have noticed. "Wisecrackin' robots! Sweet! Are they real robots? How does that work?"

The more I think about it, the more I think bad movies are important.

You see, I said Roger Corman is the moviemaker I aspire most to be and that is true, but he's not first on my list of favorites, although he places comfortably on it. The director whose work excites the biggest passion in me, that fascinates, bothers and intrigues me the most is John Huston.

I've noted this to any number of movie fans who often respond with a recitation of "bad movies" he made, misfires, mistakes, whatever. This, according to them, proves he's less than their chosen favorite because that guy has never made a bad movie. This, mind you, is usually a director who has made five movies rather than forty-five. Call me back when your director has made it to twenty hits without striking out. Then we'll talk.

In fact, as I start thinking of names that would go on a list of favorite directors, I haven't made one in quite a while, it would be filled with names like David Cronenberg, Paul Verhoeven, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Mario Bava, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, George Romero. What do all of these guys have in common? They've all made bad movies.

Ok, before you come to me and say why your choice off that list has never made a bad movie, let me clarify. All ten of the directors listed here, and plenty of others that didn't leap to mind as quickly today as they would have yesterday or last week, have made movies that were widely perceived as bad, that annoyed people, that offended people, that bored people. They all marched proudly into territory they knew would seem bad to some or that they might reach out for something and fall on their face. They walked confidently along the fine line between brilliance and balderdash.

I don't think you can truly create great art while simultaneously actively fearing making bad art. And I don't think you can make great art for an entire full career with that kind of boldness without occasionally stepping too far in the wrong direction.


In a recent entry on Jim Emerson's blog, Cronenberg, art and (self-)censorship, he excerpted a quote from David Cronenberg that seems applicable, even though it wasn't directly relating to the same subject, "It's a willing amnesia. You have to forget for the moment what the effect of what you're doing might be, or what the revelations that you come up with might suggest, or what the implications of them are."

I found myself reading Keith Allison's Teleport City review of Conquest yesterday. I agree with almost every word. In fact, to the extent I'd disagree, it would largely be in liking it even more. For instance, I think Claudio Simonetti's score has a hypnotic quality that only enhances the experience.

Conquest is by no means a brilliant work of cinema. It was, I believe, made in the same way that brilliant works of cinema are made, however. You can't worry that it may end up rated well below the median mark on IMDb. You have to not worry that people won't like it or if wisecrackin' robots are going to take you down a couple of notches.


I think this may be where I finally do take issue with George Romero's Land of the Dead, which I've praised at great length and will continue to. I do, however, think it probably lacks the greatness of his earlier work, even though it's more entertaining than Day of the Dead, the previous movie in the "Dead" series, and more coherent than Bruiser, his previous movie. I say this, because I suspect Romero saw this as a kind of last chance. He knew with that kind of money in hand at his age and with the dearth of finished work in his name over the past decade, this could be his last chance. He was afraid of making something bad and so made something that is indeed, in my opinion, quite good that never did have any chance to be great.

I suspect I'm carrying at least one skeptic reading this. "But Roger Corman has discussed at some length how the financial failure of The Intruder affected his future by making him more afraid of taking on serious subject matter head-on and making sure his work was commercially viable."

Yep.

I almost don't feel like answering this argument, though, it's so damn easy.

When was commercially viable ever antonymous with bad? Look at how many bad movies make money every year. Look at how many great movies fail. There's a big middle area of bad movies that failed, great movies that succeeded, etc. But we can all agree there's enough on both sides of that divide that you can't call them the exception that proves the rule. That just isn't the rule.

Knowing that one should have nudity two or three times in a movie, a certain number of action scenes and a certain type of core idea in order to make back its money is not the same as being afraid of being bad. It is, in fact, a pretty good way to hedge your bets and stay in a zone in which it's safe to make something bad.

I am slowly resisting my fear of seeing things that stand a good chance of being bad in my eyes. Not the things that may be bad out of sheer mediocrity and complete banality. But the things that may be, even the things that probably will be, bad because the people involved took big chances, did what they felt, struggled, ran, threw their ideas against the wall, shared their dreams for us all to see and yet failed to make something that worked, that achieved what they wanted or simply didn't resonate correctly with most people.

And more than that, keep myself unafraid that my own work will be perceived as bad. The important part is exactly that, to struggle, throw my ideas against the wall and share my dreams. Being good is merely a positive outcome.

It's actually well summed up in a comment made after the post Roger Corman: The Movie Poster on the "That Little Round-Headed Boy" blog. He acknowledges not knowing Roger Corman's career well, but sums up the aspect of his career that relates to this point quite nicely, "That's one of the things that also interests me about Corman: He doesn't seem riddled with angst. He just goes out, makes the picture, if it works out great, if it's a little more artistic or not, great. He might be the first Buddhist producer!"


NOTE: This was intended in my mind to be an interesting footnote to my original Corman post, an interesting aside to complement it. It turned out to be 300 words longer than the original post, which itself is a bit longer than I originally intended.

2 comments:

Reel Fanatic said...

Interesting stuff ... it's the mark of a great director who takes chances that some, if not many, of his or her movies will be perceived as bad by people willing to shell out $9 for "Cheaper by the Dozen 2"

Neil said...

It is indeed that.

But even that's not nearly far enough. It's quite possible to have a comfortable career like John Sayles, who I do admire a lot, and remain pretty safe within a world mostly isolated from and partially disdained by the CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN 2 crowd, while still never risking your base.

And I think great art requires exactly that. I means being willing to risk the same group of cult movie fans, critics and/or intelligentsia that supported you in the first place. The way Welles did consistently throughout his career, or Fellini did in the late '60s or Cronenberg did with M. BUTTERFLY or CRASH.

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