' ' Cinema Romantico: As Bad As It Gets

Friday, June 29, 2007

As Bad As It Gets

This was authored in honor of the cinematic trainwreck set to befall us next week (i.e. Michael Bay's "Transformers").

It's so bad, it's good. How many times has someone used this phrase to describe a movie to you? I've heard it often but I don't consider myself a staunch believer in the So Bad, It's Good cinematic movement. It seems that most of the movies I see that people recommend solely on their fact of being so bad that they're good come across as being nothing more than bad. Or, they're So Bad, They're Bad.

I'm not quite sure how a director looking to do nothing more than make a cheap buck and, therefore, creating a bad - if very, very bad - movie can somehow equate to being good at the same time. The director couldn't care if the movie was awful or not. No, for a movie to become So Bad, It's God it literally has to transcend badness.

What does that mean exactly? It means that the movie's intentions of being good had to be so high, and its execution so inept, that it -as I said - transcends badness.

For an example of what I'm talking about we can look no further than the inimitable Ed Wood. As David Lazarus has noted in regards to the infamous "Plan 9 From Outer Space" on salon.com, "this is the film for which the phrase 'So bad it's good' was invented." Ed Wood was so sincere in trying to craft great movies, and failed so spectacularly at it, that his movies were able to achieve the feeling of being so bad that they were good. The situation in "Plan 9" that arises when actor Bela Lugosi died midway through filming and Wood pressed on by simply having a different actor take the place of Lugosi and hold a black sheet in front of his face? That transcends badness.

A more modern example would be Paul Verhoeven's (who is to a distinguished colleage of mine what Michael Mann is to me) "Showgirls". You've seen it, right? It's bad. So, so, so, so, so bad, though not merely bad to where you shake your head, curse the movie gods and turn it off but bad to where you roar with glee and can't bring yourself to stop watching because you want to know how bad the train's going to come off the rails at the next turn. But Verhoeven still - to this very day - is under the impression that he made an extremely "elegant" (his word, not mine) movie. It's the fact that Verhoeven made such a horrendous movie with such devotion that it was able to become So Bad, It's Good.

But for my money, the most brilliant example of this theory can be found from the 1998 wannabe'-blockbuster "Godzilla", brought to us by the "genius" minds of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. First things first, I want to be clear that the majority of this movie is not So Bad, It's Good. The majority of this movie is just plain bad. (Again, I have a distinguished colleague - the same colleague who worships at the altar of Verhoeven - who can provide a hilarious running commentary side-by-side with "Godzilla", if you ever have that desire.) But there is one scene that is different from all the rest.

I vividly recall seeing this scene for the first time. I was watching a sneak preview of said film with my fellow theater employees at the Cobblestone 9 Cinemas in Des Moines, Iowa. As the scene ended, my rear end rose just a bit from the seat which contained it. I was on the verge of walking out. But something stopped me. At the time, I didn't know what that something was and only much later did I realize it was because while what had nearly caused me to walk out was hideously awful it was also captivatingly brilliant to a degree difficult to initially comprehend.

The scene of which I speak? Our female lead, Audrey (Maria Pitillo), has absconded with a top-secret video tape of the title creature possessed by our male lead, Nick (poor Matthew Broderick), and filmed a news report using it (although she ends up not getting credit for the story) since, you see, she wants nothing more than to be a reporter. But when the Army, for whom Nick is working, see this report, and hear his name in conjunction with it, he is quickly dismissed. And we see him on a rainy street, putting his bags in the trunk of a cab, when Audrey spies him and rushes over to him. We are then privileged enough to witness the following exchange:

AUDREY: Is this because of me? Because of the story?
NICK: Well what did you think was going to happen?
AUDREY: You never said it was off the record.
NICK: I shouldn't have to, Audrey. You're supposed to be my friend. I trusted you.

(Are you howling yet? Are you falling out of your chair since you're laughing so hard?)

AUDREY: I didn't mean for it to turn out like this. Look, I lied to you. I'm not a reporter. When we broke up and I came out to New York I was so sure I'd make it. But I haven't. That's why I needed this story so bad. I just couldn't tell you I'm a failure.
NICK: And you thought that made it okay to steal my tapes?
AUDREY: No, that was a terrible thing. I never should've done that.

-Nick closes the trunk and climbs inside the cab.

NICK: Good luck in your new career. I think you really have what it takes.

-He slams the door shut. The cab drives away leaving Audrey standing alone in the driving rain.

AUDREY: (to herself) I'm sorry.

Reading to yourself, I'm sure, that just comes across as nothing but bad. And it is. But you've gotta' see it. The key to the scene is that Emmerich and Devlin were not just trying to cram in some character development before they rushed to the next scene of Godzilla destroying stuff. No, the way this scene is done you can easily tell they were trying to make a gut-wrenching, emotional scene. They were trying so darn hard and they failed so darn badly.

When Pitillo says "I'm sorry" to the cab as it drives away with rain pelting her face, this is an actress trying to nail it - trying to give us a Bergman or a Dunaway or a Winslet moment - and not even coming close. It comes across like the female lead in the fifth grade play trying to say "I'm sorry" with the play director (who doubles as the Social Studies teacher) using a garden hose to fake rain.

This scene wants you to like it with a fierce urgency. It wants you to grab a tissue and maybe cuddle up to your loved one. But instead it makes you want to rise from your seat and turn off the damn thing because, man, you just can't take it anymore. But you don't just like I didn't. I walked out on "Varsity Blues" because it was bad. I walked out on "Van Helsing" because it was bad. I walked out on "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" because it was bad. But I didn't walk out on Godzilla because that scene - that one, single scene - was So Bad, It Was Good.

No, no, no, no. It was So Bad, It Was Brilliant. And badness may never get so brilliant again.


Sabina's hat said...

So badness can turn into goodness if it's sincere? Or trying hard? Why, apart from the finished product itself, should I care about the motivations of the filmmakers?

Even though I will sometimes fall into it, the jealous mockery of ironists at the presence of sincerity in bad art strikes me as a pretty unfunny joke.

Wretched Genius said...

I think you're leaving out another distinction that falls somewhere between the Just Plain Bad and the So Bad, It's Good. I am speaking of movies (usually sequels) that try so hard to top another film that they become unintentional parody. "Basic Instinct 2" comes to mind, as does "Hannibal." They went so over-the-top that they almost become straight satire. Or "2 Days in the Vally" trying to out-Tarantino Tarantino. I'm waiting for "Final Destination 4" to actually use a scaled-up version of the Mouse Trap game to kill someone.

Rory Larry said...

I've been saying for years that Final Destination should have every character killed by a process that started because the characters were saved. One elaborate over the top ridiculous process perhaps initiated by a cat who at movie's end would leap into the lap of Tony Todd who would smile and credits.

I can't believe I'm about to do this but in point of fact I do believe "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" does have moments that are trying to be sincere and thus qualify for your "so bad they are good" criteria. Sounds like you just didn't wait long enough. Which is the problem with your whole theory.