Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Bad movie cinema

Terrible films like Showgirls and The Room have become cult icons, but is there any real artistic value to these films?

Bad movie cinema

Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed and produced "The Room"
Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed and produced "The Room"

In the Trocadero’s regal theater space, once used for vaudeville and burlesque performances, it would seem fitting to screen a film on the decadence and deception in the live of Las Vegas dancers. However, this was Showgirls, and we weren’t there to admire Paul Verhoeven’s vision. With all pretensions of artistic criticism stripped away, lines like, “Long time ago. Doggy Chow. I used to love Doggy Chow,” become as good as punch lines, as the audience laughs, groans, hangs their head, picking apart the film’s follies. Even the few patrons shouting quips at the screen were welcomed as another factor in the unique theater-going experience of bad movie cinema.

Whether it is gathering together for a night of Birdemic or enjoying live comedic commentary of ‘Manos’ Hands of Fate, the delight in entertainingly terrible cinema has allowed for theater bookings and recognition of films that would have otherwise been forgotten. In fact, Tommy Wiseau’s famously awful feature The Room has garnered a cult fan base, fueled by lively interactions with screenings akin to that of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Does this affinity signify a level of artistic value? No. Still, there may be value to the shared audience experience, as well as the growing development of comedic commentary and riffing, that has been shaped around the films that missed their mark in the cinematic art world. 

“You’re going there not expecting it to be anything else than what it is and making the best out of it yourself,” said Kevin Murphy. “It’s a whole different way of enjoying a movie.” Murphy was a director, writer, and star of the show Mystery Science Theater 3000. Fans of the show, which is also known as MST3K, may remember him as Tom Servo. People have been gleefully picking apart terrible films for years on their own. However, MST3K, which ran from 1988 to 1999, and won a Peabody in 1994, was key in sparking the early interest of taking the irreverent deconstruction of blindingly awful films and expanding it to a wider audience. Though the show ended after 11 seasons, MST3K members Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett, alongside a team of writers and guest comedians, still do commentaries through RiffTrax. They’ve also been joined by dozens of other groups who continue this growing tradition, confirming a statement by Murphy that riffing is “certainly a form of comedy, now.”  

This includes the gang of the podcast We Hate Movies, who did a live commentary for the Cinedelphia screening of M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water in April. Like many film lovers, Andrew Jupin said that he and the other three core members of the group, Chris Cabin, Stephen Sajdak, and Eric Szyszka used to get together to watch bad films, while living in the same New York neighborhood. He said that since they each had a background in comedy, whether writing or performing, the podcast was a natural transition, taking something they already did to the public, while practicing and honing their comedic skills.

Jupin also sees value in the crowd experience that the podcast and their live commentaries offer. “It’s one thing to sit and watch a movie, good or bad, on your phone or tablet, but it’s a completely different thing to get together with a group of folks and watch something. And I think that translates so easily into bad movies,” said Jupin. “I feel nowadays, with there being less of a reason to go out to see a movie, with the turnaround time of stuff coming on home release, and simultaneous releases on VOD and everything like that, I think something like what we’re doing is appealing, if only because it’s sort of an added component to seeing this movie.”

This touches on a sort of twisted irony in the current age of cinema. On the one side is the debate over the impact of illegal downloading, versus staggering ticket costs. On another side, is the ongoing fear that the theatrical experience is dying, as the digital age creates new landscapes for distribution, while making viewing portable and convenient. It seems that each time quarter earnings decrease, a slew of films underperform, or another theater closes its doors, these questions arise beside concerns in content. However, that doesn’t stop The Room from selling out in theaters across the United States and the UK. So, the question is what is the “added component” in comedic commentary, and the route of our attraction to these brutally terrible films?

Murphy was clear in the fact that with the exception of the RiffTrax commentary on classic films like Casablanca or Jaws, which he describes as being more like “a good natured roast,” he is not inherently attracted to the films he comments over. The experience is best described through his account of riffing Vanilla Ice film, titled Cool As Ice: “The only way you can survive is to just goof on it.”

Still, relating to Jupin’s statement, Murphy also said that as the RiffTrax team performs live shows across the country, it all circles back to that collective experience. “There’s something about the group celebration of that cheesiness that is much funnier,” he said. “When people get together, and laugh at these movies together, they become exponentially funnier.”

There may also be some added charm in the fact that while cinema is sometimes seen as a “one-way” art form, heckling in bad movie cinema is not only encouraged but applauded when done well—perhaps explaining our love of comedic commentary. Andrew Jupin even said that the crew of We Hate Movies prefers to keep that custom when performing live. “We always say during our intros, we might be the ones with the microphone, but if you notice something or you think of something you’re willing to take a leap with, and scream out in front of 100 people, do it,” he said.

It could also be a sadomasochistic love of failure. “There’s a whole sea’s worth of Schadenfreude going on at the We Hate Movies offices,” said Jupin. One could argue that it permeates our culture. Shows like Tosh.0 and sites like Fail Blog bring their viewers together for the public celebration, or shaming, of life’s jaw-dropping mishaps and frighteningly poor decisions. Maybe it should come as no surprise that a society thrilled by “train-wreck” amusements would likewise be drawn to picking apart The Wicker Man, relishing that moment when Nicholas Cage belts out, “No! Not the bees!”

Regardless of the reason, nothing quite touches on the combined shredding of these well-intentioned tangles of time, money, sweat, and tears, deteriorating into a feature-length’s worth of defeat. This may sound mean-spirited. However, the art of film can also be overanalyzed, with fuming disputes over what is a quality film, what should have been nominated for an Academy Award, which reputed reviewers are full of hot wind, etc. Perhaps it’s a necessary relief just to gather for the sake of poking fun without critique.

Tomorrow, the Trocadero will be screening The Room at 10:30 PM tomorrow, with ticket prices under $10 and the risk of disappoint fairly low. After all, anyone who has already seen the film can already tell you—it’s going to be ridiculous.  

Stephanie Ogrodnik Art Attack
About this blog
Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

Stephanie Ogrodnik Art Attack
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