Diamonds of the Rough: The Art of Bad Cinema

 Photo: TPW Films

Photo: TPW Films

Why do we create art? Certainly, there are a number of reasons: for the purpose of self-expression, to create a lasting imprint of one’s self on society, for the sake of beauty or fame. The inspiration to create art must be powerful, lest it be exhausted before completion. Creation is a grueling, unrewarding experience, and often the mediocre and palatable are rewarded over the risk takers. Producing truly great art is an act of capturing lightning in a bottle, seeming as much equal parts skill and luck; however, the same can be said of truly bad art.

In recent decades, the appreciation of works in an ironic fashion has become popularized; in particular, this phenomenon has surged around a renaissance of bad movies. The Room, Samurai Cop, and Trolls 2 have become household names in spite of their total inability to grasp basic conventions of storytelling or filmmaking. What is it about these films that sets them apart from other pieces of bad art? In Hollywood alone there are dozens of movies released each year that are both critically and publicly chastised. What is the difference between a Jack and Jill and a Miami Connection? To understand this, one needs to delve into the history of bad art appreciation.

The roots of the current bad movie renaissance can be found in the ‘camp’ movement, a mainstay of the 20th century LGBT community. Camp is the appreciation of art that champions bad taste in an ironic fashion. In film, the camp style was popularized in the 1960s by filmmakers such as John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) who rejected the stifling definitions of high art and beauty and instead aimed to create lively and exaggerated pieces. The LGBT elements of camp can still be found alive and well today in shows such as Rupaul's Drag Race.

However, camp applies to not the creation of the art, but rather the act of its appreciation; in order for a work to be considered camp, it must be understood and analyzed by the audience as being such. For example, Adam West’s 1960s Batman, with its swinger style and slapstick violence, is camp without intending to be so; that is why camp can exist across any genre.

Consider, for instance, the spectacle of WWE-style professional wrestling. What, at first, seems to be a haven for American conservative masculinity, has more in common with Rupaul’s Drag Race than actual sport. Both are acts in spectacle, with over the top characters and rivals, often in heavy makeup and ridiculous costume, utilizing special moves for the purpose of competition that is generally acknowledged as scripted (though die hard fans may disagree). The love of camp is a uniting concept.

So how does this apply to the bad film renaissance? Well, if we analyze the experience of watching a bad movie, rather than the movie itself, we can piece together a common theme: the communal experience of questioning. So much of what makes watching a bad movie great is being able to experience it with others.

When watching bad movies with friends, a really great bad movie will spur conversation in the middle of a scene. Viewers point out plot holes, actors flubbing lines, cheap sets, bad hair, or whatever else baffles them in attempt share the experience of absurdity. A great bad movie must spurn questions from the viewer regarding not just what they’re seeing, but why they are seeing it. Why does the samurai cop have real hair in one scene, but a wig in the next? Why would someone shoot a skateboarder with a rocket launcher? What country does Tommy Wiseau come from?

These questions are symptomatic of a key feature of true great-bad movies, sincerity. There is a naive optimism that permeates in any great bad movie; often the result of a ‘visionary’ producer or director with more money than sense. It can be found in Y.K. Kim’s strong anti-violence moral, Tommy Wiseau’s attempt at grand drama, or Neil Breen’s anti-government/corporation messaging. We can’t say these movies failed for lack of passion; the reasons for their failure lie in their execution. Conversely, a patently awful Adam Sandler escapade is terrible for obvious reasons: costs are cut, product placements abound, and roles phoned in. It is far more compelling to see Icarus fly too close to the sun, rather than see him fail by not flying at all.

However, this is not to say that a major production can’t be both bad and sincere; Battlefield Earth, starring John Travolta, stands out as one of the all time greatest in baffling productions. Nonetheless, the nature of the film industry means that visionaries are put under the thumb of executives, testing groups, and all manner of factors that quash an individual’s voice on a project. Thus, the best bad films are often independent or low budget productions.

So, whether it is good art or bad art, what truly sets apart a work from its peers is the passion and voice put into it. Perhaps that is what draws us to bad art. The knowledge that regardless of our skill or budget, any one of us could produce works that are memorable or bring joy…just perhaps not for the reasons we had intended.