I’ve got a couple of nephews who delight in “bad” movies. It seems that they’d rather watch “bad” movies to the exclusion of good movies, and in the last few weeks we’ve had a sequence of Saturday afternoon film-festivals at my house in which one of the nephews shares his favorite “bad” movies with my two boys and my friend Ian, and vice versa. And so I’ve been pondering the notion of “bad” movies and of enjoying “bad” movies. by “bad” movies, of course, I don’t mean morally bad; I mean poorly executed or poorly conceived, MST3K-style bad, Plan 9 from Outer Space bad, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes bad.
I don’t have any finished conclusions, mind you. I often have to write stuff down to figure out what I think. But I’ve got some ideas and some questions about aesthetics, and where the goodness in movies is found, and what it means to enjoy a movie, especially a bad one. Please forgive me in advance if I go on a bit.
Let me climb up on my high horse for a moment. I promise I’ll climb back down afterwards, and if you leave me up there in the saddle you’ll go away with the wrong impression.
I’m somewhat bothered by the idea of habitually watching movies simply to make fun of how ineptly they are acted, directed, or conceived. It seems to me that rejoicing in another’s lack of skill or understanding is, in the long run, spiritually and morally corrosive. It ain’t good for you. It’s like schadenfreude: we all give into it sometimes, but if we were better people we wouldn’t. And there’s an attitude that goes with it: a determination to find things to belittle and mock.
I’m reminded of Uncle Screwtape’s division of the sources of laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. Of these, flippancy is the problem: it’s laughing at something for the sake of laughing at it, of treating it as funny whether it’s funny or not. It’s a laughter that masks something darker:
Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.
Time to climb down. That doesn’t seem to be what my nephews are doing. As I watch them watching movies with my kids, they all seem to be having a good time. The laughter isn’t forced; they see things on the screen and are honestly moved to laughter. There seems to be a good deal of Fun in the air:
Fun is closely related to Joy— a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct.
And maybe even some Joy, too. Certainly it is exciting genuine affection between my nephews and my sons, and on Lewis’ definition it avoids the charge of flippancy.
So what’s going on, then?
First, it is beyond question that my nephews are watching these movies and enjoying them. And that means that there’s something there to enjoy: the movie, though a “bad” movie, has some goodness to it. Clearly it’s not the goodness the movie-makers intended, but there’s something there that is genuinely funny or entertaining, if you have eyes to see it.
…if you have eyes to see it. Now I think we’re getting closer.
Some twenty years ago, I remember being in a Usenet discussion of what it means for a book to be a good book. The notion of there being any kind of absolute scale of literary goodness was swiftly eviscerated by the other participants; beauty, I was told, is in the eye of the beholder. What you like is what you like; don’t try to make more of it than that.
I didn’t understand, then, that there is an absolute standard of beauty, God himself; things are beautiful to the extent that they express some aspect of his majesty and glory. But I digress; that’s a big topic, too big to shoehorn in here. I’ll simply note that I’m not saying that art is beautiful only insofar as it is explicitly religious. Far from it.
What was clear to me at the time is that each genre has its own aesthetic. A mystery novel is a good or bad mystery novel based on the aesthetics of that genre. A whodunnit in which the murderer is not found and the crime is never solved isn’t much of a whodunnit, though it might be a successful novel on other grounds. And similarly, a novel might be very successful as a whodunnit even if it fails purely as a novel. Some whodunnits are simply carefully contrived logic puzzles; plot and characterization are secondary. (I tend not like these, myself.)
And then, of course, some authors write gloriously well, some write adequately, and some are so awful you wonder how they got published. (In the interests of not being flippant, I’ll name no names.) There is a scale of goodness; in fact, there are multiple axes of goodness.
The point is, though, that when addressing the quality or lack thereof of a creative work, you need to consider which aesthetic to apply—and especially, you need to consider the aesthetic used by the creator. It’s no use criticizing a book according to the aesthetics of the romance genre when the author was intending to write a sci-fi thriller. Science fiction novels are notorious for whirlwind romances, where proximity leads to true love in next to no time, but that’s just to add a little love interest to a book that’s about something else.
Nevertheless, some books do succeed according to multiple aesthetics. One could list many, many works of genre fiction that are not only outstanding science fiction or mystery or romance novels, but are simply outstanding novels. If it makes no sense to ignore the creator’s aesthetic, it also makes no sense to ignore other aesthetics, if they apply.
So back to “bad” movies. The director had some aesthetic in mind (one hopes) and for whatever reason failed to achieve it. Perhaps he was too ambitious. Perhaps he was incompetent. Perhaps he was bored and careless. Perhaps he was simply meeting a contractual obligation. Perhaps he did the best with what he had. Perhaps he simply set his sights very low, and excelled at meeting his goals. (I understand that the original Little Shop of Horrors got made that way.)
And then, my nephews are applying a different aesthetic, and enjoying the movie because of how well that aesthetic applies. So what does that aesthetic look like?
In The Producers, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder famously try to produce a Broadway show that is so horrible that it will close after the first night, leaving them with all the dollars. Instead, it’s a hit. The audience assumed that it was meant to be a campy comedy, and judged it as a campy comedy, and judged it hysterical. The producers failed of their aim, but produced a show that succeeded according to a normal aesthetic. They meant to be painful, and succeeded at being funny.
That doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here, though. My nephews truly seem to delight in these films not because of their successes, but precisely because of how they fail. There’s a sort of perverse aesthetic involved here: the movie is enjoyable precisely because of how far it falls short. It seems to be a rejoicing in what is truly bad rather than what is good.
And so I’m left to wonder: is that mean-spirited? Is over-indulgence in this spiritually corrosive? And if so, is occasional indulgence spiritually corrosive? Or is this all good clean fun?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not looking for reasons to drop the hammer. I’m simply a bit puzzled.