Sometimes the best movies make the least sense.
One evening every month, film buffs from all over Boston flock to the Coolidge Corner Theater.
They arrive just before midnight, toting plastic cutlery by the handful. Some come in costume, long black wigs and ill-fitting suits. There's a fervor in the air, excited people preparing to share something wonderful. A few of them are new, dragged along by knowing friends. Most of them are seasoned veterans. If you listen closely, you might hear someone shout, "OH HAI MARK."
Of course they're here to see The Room, the infamous, beloved, and indescribable passion project from director Tommy Wiseau. The movie, often referred to as "the worst film ever made," has been a favorite of film lovers for over a decade and recently came to wider public attention through James Franco's The Disaster Artist. But The Room is far from the only "bad movie" to achieve wild success amongst a niche, film-literate audience. There's also Troll 2, most things starring Nicholas Cage, and everything ever made by Neil Breen.
These "bad movies" have held onto the type of lasting success that most "good movies" could only dream of—the kind of "butts-in-seats" impact that drives people to attend midnight screenings and write analysis articles years after they've come out. They have staying power in a way that most other movies don't. When so many people clearly love them, it begs the question: are these "bad movies" actually bad?
What Makes Bad Movies So Good?
Have you ever watched something so cringey you couldn't look away? Something you knew was trash but couldn't help enjoying? Something so absurdly bad that you ask yourself, "How could another human have thought this was okay to put out into the world?" That's part of the appeal of a great "bad movie."
Take this scene from The Room for example:
Oh Hai Doggy! www.youtube.com
Within the course of 18 seconds, we watch a man walk into a store and get greeted by a clerk who knows him by name for some reason. Then we watch him complete a transaction, say hello to a dog, get told he's the clerk's "favorite customer," say goodbye to the clerk, and exit. Technically, this scene fails on every conceivable level. It doesn't advance the narrative or tell us anything we need to know about the character. The audio dubbing is mismatched. The dialogue seems like it was written by aliens poorly approximating human interaction. And why is there a fat dog on the counter? For such a short scene, there's so much to unpack. It's bizarre and hilarious, so bad that it's actually good.
Of course some "bad movies" really are just bad―boring, bland, unwatchable. But as The Room illustrates, a bad script and bad acting can also be funny. Poor directing choices can be comical. Sometimes a mish-mashed movie, its individual parts a total mess, comes together in such a perfect way that you can't help but feel like it works. It's funny and cringey and enjoyable. But it also functions as a deconstruction of film, a glimpse into the sort of things that don't work. In other words, great "bad movies" make us appreciate "great movies" even more.
Criteria For Greatness
Let's consider what makes a movie "great." We tend to think of "great movies" in the same way reviewers do. A great movie has a great plot and great dialogue and great characters. A great movie is also shot well and oftentimes features a distinguishable director's touch that sets it apart. So when we say a movie is great, what we usually mean is that the movie is very well made and worth seeing.
A "bad movie," on the other hand, can have any number of issues. It can be shoddily made with confusing characters and poor direction. Or, it can be completely adept, but boring. When we say a movie is "bad," we don't necessarily mean "don't see this movie." Ok, we might mean that, but we might also mean that the movie fails just on a technical level.
Certain movies might even seem beyond categorization. For instance, check out this scene from Vampire's Kiss.
Vampire's Kiss - Misfiling & the ABC's www.youtube.com
When Nicholas Cage yells the ABCs, is that good acting? Bad acting? Something else entirely? It's certainly strange, and definitely funny. But that doesn't necessarily denote quality. This is one of the core mysteries behind so many of Nicholas Cage's performances—is he a good actor or a terrible one? How can you even define a performance that exists so far outside the realm of normalcy? There is one way. Unfortunately, approaching movies through a tradition review lens doesn't fully account for one of the most important factors in what makes us want to see a movie: enjoyability.
The Enjoyability Factor
In a sense, a movie's enjoyability exists outside of its quality. A great movie, one that is masterfully crafted and thought-provoking, can also be incredibly hard to sit through. Whereas the latest superhero blockbuster might not have the greatest script nor the most complex direction, but you'll probably have a really fun time watching it. You can appreciate the quality of Schindler's List while still liking Aquaman much more. In this regard, movie reviews fall short.
As an exercise, watch these two trailers back-to-back. The first is Academy Award nominated best picture The Pianist. The second is Neil Breen's Fate Findings.
The Pianist (2002) Official Trailer - Adrien Brody Movie www.youtube.com
Fateful Findings - Trailer www.youtube.com
Which movie seems more enjoyable: the harrowing, emotionally draining Holocaust tale or the poorly acted supernatural mystery about a "hacker" who has discovered "government secrets?" Of course The Pianist is technically "better." But it doesn't have a middle-aged man smashing a computer and yelling "NO MORE BOOKS" either.
Perhaps if we want to account for enjoyability, we need to approach film review from a different angle. Typical scoring systems work wonderfully when you're trying to express the quality of a film, but how would you even begin to approach a movie like the The Room ― a movie with horrendous dialogue, nonsensical characters, and absurd directing choices that ultimately result in one of the strangest (but extremely rewatchable) movies ever made? From an objective quality stance, everything is terrible. But when you take enjoyability into account, it's arguably not just better than "good movies;" it's better than a lot of "great movies" too.
Enjoyability reviews would judge a movie on different criteria than most standard reviews. Rather than focusing on quality, we would focus on:
- How funny is this movie?
- How cool is the action?
- How likely is someone to leave the theater feeling like they had a great time?
And in the case of especially poorly made movies:
- How amusing are the fuck-ups?
- Is it "good-bad" or just "bad-bad?"
Our enjoyment of movies is just as important, if not moreso, than our appreciation of their quality. To some extent, enjoyment might be the most important aspect of our movie-going experiences. So if that's the case, why not approach reviews and film criticism through that lens too?
In this light, it's easy to understand how Fateful Findings may be superior to Saving Private Ryan. How Vampire's Kiss may be preferable to The Godfather. How The Room might be the greatest film ever made.
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