Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Essays

The Cinema of Inadvertence, or Why I Like Bad Movies

We bad-movie watchers have our own anticriteria, the sorts of badness we prefer.

Phil Christman

Scene from Plan 9 from Outer Space with Tor Johnson and Mona McKinnon, Edward D. Wood, Jr., director; United Archives GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo.

I watch bad movies, a pastime and a passion I have long shared with my father. When I was a child, we would sit on one of a series of couches scavenged from yard sales or curbsides, eating microwave popcorn while watching, say, Teenagers from Outer Space (1959) or Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1962). My father would set the VCR to tape movies like these in the middle of the night from the sorts of TV channels that programmed them, with palpable desperation, between reruns of The Incredible Hulk and camcordered ads for local mattress-store chains. Amusement, like couches, had to be taken where found.

Ours was neither a wholly singular nor widely shared hobby. A few years later, the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 made text of this subtext: Its framing device consisted of a man and two robots cracking wise over the soundtrack as bad movies played onscreen. It was important that the man wasn’t simply alone, and that, at the same time, he was somewhat isolated: a Crusoe-like figure alone on a satellite, forced to build himself a minisociety of talking robots. Watching bad movies was a social yet marginal activity; it was a way of watching that orbited the normal enjoyment of film.

In the canon of bad films, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) is the anticlassic. On the satellite where bad-movie watchers gather, it is our Citizen Kane, our Seven Samurai, and in the ages before Amazon, you had to really search to find it. Its ineptitude was legendary. The flying saucers are clearly flaming paper plates; the actors keep pointing their prop weapons at themselves, or each other, having forgotten to pretend that the plastic objects in their hands are supposed to be guns. Footage of a dying Bela Lugosi—top-billed in what was, sadly, his last movie—is intermixed with other shots, made after Lugosi’s death, of a much taller man (reportedly Wood’s wife’s chiropractor) as the same character, crouching and covering his face.

To a child, the adult world is oppressive in part because of its apparent competence, its air of knowing what ought to be done and when and what to call everything. The unending, dogged, elaborate, even painstaking failure of Plan 9—the way it seems to go out of its way to fail—was tonic to the imagination, a kind of carnivalesque reversal. I needed to see adult inadvertence, and name it as such; I needed to observe the little hole it made in the world.

Eventually, I too became an adult, passionately devoted to writing (which, for a person in his twenties, frequently also means “passionate in avoiding doing any”). I read treatises on aesthetics; I pondered greatness. It became important to me to assume an authority of my own, to know what I was doing. I tried to become the kind of person who could provide stable, coherent answers to the sorts of questions that many readers will already, four paragraphs in, want to pose about this essay: What do I mean, “bad” movies? Who says they’re bad? By what criteria? How do I know those are sound criteria? And what meaning of “bad” do I intend?

Regarding distinctions of “good” and “bad,” we have not really moved much past David Hume’s essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” which two and a half centuries ago told us that “good” art was what a consensus of the thoughtful and experienced said it was. You developed the ability to discern it by thoughtfully comparing one work with another. To this argument, his twenty-first century readers would merely add emphasis to a fact Hume thought too obvious to dwell upon: It takes some amount of privilege to take part in the conversation that he describes. A person needs literacy and free time, for starters, but also the ability to look “authoritative” (however “authoritative” looks at the moment), or the extra cleverness and luck and persistence that allow one to get by without looking that way.

For this reason Hume strikes us—correctly—as a snob. But the process he illuminates is at work to some degree among fans of any human activity. Children ranking soccer players, and arguing over their rankings, engage in it too. The same with forms of artistic activity Hume would not have recognized. Read a hundred romance novels, and you’ll have some opinions about who writes the best ones and what you mean by “best.” Discuss those opinions with others, and you’ll hear certain names again and again (Georgette Heyer; Jennifer Crusie). Before science fiction became respectable—indeed, inescapable—any fan could still tell you that Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon, and before them Stanley Weinbaum, wrote circles around Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. This is just how any social human activity works. We participate, we compare, we start to notice our favorites, we start to articulate what makes them favorites. And because each of us is not a member of a species of one, some of those criteria overlap. Exclusive and oppressive social structures distort this process, but they do not constitute it.

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