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.
Angry Trash Reclamation
We bad-movie watchers have our own anticriteria, the sorts of badness we prefer. Some of us use the term “bad movies” to mean, simply, films that emerge from a supposedly lowbrow genre, or films that are stylized in the manner we tend to label “camp.” (Road House from 1989 is this kind of bad movie, and is very good at being one.) Some of us prefer movies that are exploitative and tacky but, in a Nietzschean way, supposedly more alive than respectable ones. Renata Adler referred to the cult around such movies as “the angry trash claimers,”11xRenata Adler, “Introduction: A Year In the Dark,” After the Tall Timber (New York, NY: Random House, 2015), 246. a term by which she probably intended to indict Pauline Kael, whose “Trash, Art, and the Movies” could serve as a manifesto for this sort of criticism.22xPauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Going Steady (New York, NY: Marion Boyars, 1994), 106. The rock critic Lester Bangs, in an endearing essay about Ray Dennis Steckler’s delirious 1963 horror film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, practices Angry Trash Reclamation, arguing that the film’s apparent innocence of good taste gives it a kind of “lunar purity.”33xLester Bangs, “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Or, The Day the Airwaves Erupted,” Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1988), 122.
Other bad films fascinate because they define an area of heroic obsession, horrifically misapplied. The heroism and the misapplication are inseparable. Anyone can commit himself body and soul to a clearly formulated project of obvious importance or quality, but to throw your last dollar, your last scrap of energy, into something ill-conceived and absurd from the beginning: That takes a human being. The comedian Patton Oswalt, riffing on the movie Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), asks a question that has probably badgered every artist: What if films like Death Bed are as much the result of artistic passion and endurance as, say, Apocalypse Now? What if, in pushing past my self-doubt, being true to my vision, I only demonstrate the salience of that doubt, the tragic extent of my astigmatism?44xPatton Oswalt, “Death Bed,” track 21, Werewolves and Lollipops, Sub Pop, 2007, CD.
Raising questions you don’t answer—and begging some of the ones you do—is the prerogative of anyone who discusses art of any kind in print. The same person will tell you, with no attempt to resolve the tensions, that the idea of “good” art is a construct foisted upon us by powerful people (or, if they’ve read Foucault, simply by “power”), and that Iron Man 2 is “objectively the worst” Marvel movie. We will say, if we have been to graduate school, that an artist’s intention and biography do not matter, while focusing obsessively on the personal lives, choices, and sociopolitical commitments of artists. Attempts to discipline the discussion by grounding aesthetics in science tend either toward a pleasing but vague mysticism (claims about the beauty of the Golden Ratio, followed by a chain of explanations that infinitely defer explanation) or a barbarous oversimplification (we appreciate the large muscles of Michelangelo’s David because baby chicks react to the color red). We use the conceptual vocabulary of several distinct and often-opposed aesthetics without thinking about it.
And so, as I pursued writing and higher education, as the choices I’d make in life began to make me more and more distant not just from the boy on the couch, but from the father sitting next to him, I kept watching bad movies, wondering how the satellite and the planet interacted. I drove across town to see a revival screening of King Kong Lives (1986), a film so bad that the distributors refused to allow Siskel and Ebert to show clips of it on their television program. I stayed up late finding and downloading the bits and pieces of a torrent file of the 1982 Turkish fantasy film Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (The Man Who Saved the World), known in Anglophone countries as “Turkish Star Wars” because of its unauthorized and awkward splicing-in of actual Star Wars footage. I lost my wallet, not inappropriately, at a showing of The Dragon Lives Again (1979), a surreal festival of copyright infringement in which an actor playing (though hardly resembling) a resurrected Bruce Lee fights characters named The Godfather, The Exorcist, Popeye, James Bond, and Dracula, among others. I came to love Twilight (2008), with its wholly original, indeed hermetic vision of human psychology and conversation, its endearingly transparent wish-fulfillment aspects, its inexplicable baseball game. After it left theaters, I marveled at Batman vs. Superman (2016), that filmic analogue of a moody teenager hilariously incapable of remembering or articulating why he’s moody.
Shades of Badness
“Bad” can also mean “morally coarsening”—which “trash film,” in the Bangs/Kael sense, often is. For that reason, I am not terribly interested in trash, as such, though I admire some films thus labeled. Nor do I care, except sociologically, about the values assigned to varying brow placements. When I think a film from a lowbrow genre is good, I simply categorize it as good. The particular kind of badness I like is the film that is childish or incompetent—what it does, it does inadvertently.
Some bad movies, for example, reveal through sheer lack of self-awareness the incoherencies and solecisms of the culture that produces them. These sorts of movies fascinate me in the way a too-honest idiot does, after he’s had three or four drinks. Red Dawn (1984) is notoriously enjoyable in this way. More recently, Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time exemplifies this sort of badness. (DuVernay has done excellent work before and after this film, particularly in her studies of the prison-industrial complex, 13th and When They See Us, so I attribute the rich and extravagant lousiness of A Wrinkle in Time to its screenwriters, and to its rumored short production schedule.) Like many memorably bad movies, A Wrinkle in Time is full of moments that, if done in a self-aware spirit, would constitute unanswerable satire. Passing this test are the scenes in which Oprah Winfrey, as magical Mrs. Which, stands two stories tall, shimmering like a hologram and smiling benignantly upon heroic young Meg Murray. What a brilliantly sly commentary this almost is on Oprah’s odd place in American life, how she patronizes us from her billionaire height while remaining trapped in the thankless, dehumanizing role of white femininity’s wise, bodiless, never-quite-real cosmic black friend. (More purely absurd is the moment when Reese Witherspoon transforms into a flying lettuce.)
Where the film does its greatest service, however—and where it provides a glimpse into American culture that is so dark, so total, that its badness lingers in the mind like greatness—is in the way it foregrounds the unconscious nihilism of the American worship of self-esteem. At one point, Mrs. Which says to Meg, “Do you realize how many events, choices, that had to occur since the birth of the universe leading up to the making of you? Just exactly the way you are.” She could say the same thing to Charles Manson, or to Henry Kissinger, or to a leaf blower, and be equally correct. (Manson no doubt would enthusiastically agree: What an unlikely path the universe took on its way to producing his uniquely authoritative self.) Soon after, Mrs. Which introduces Meg to a faun played by Zach Galifianakis. His job is to help Meg—who I must stress is a child—rescue her father—who I must stress is an astrophysicist, trapped at the other end of the universe, by an all-but-omnipotent evil intelligence. Galifianakis tells her that she can already do it: She’s simply choosing not to.
It’s a startlingly cruel moment. Reflecting on it later, I remembered an anecdote my wife often tells. She was, by some cosmic accident, eating dinner with the owner of a prominent health-food company, who asked her what she studied. She answered that her father was in prison, and that her scholarship therefore focused on prison art, particularly theater. He drew back: “You can’t let that kind of negativity into your life. You have to make your own universe—you have the power.” This is where the idea of “manifesting” a desired outcome leads: to a denial of vulnerability that has direct and ugly moral and political implications. No social critic has ever indicted such Southern California touchy-feelyism as acutely as this scene does simply by exemplifying it: a bearded fool, moist with benignity, telling a child it’s her fault her father can’t come home.
I do not believe that we manifest our own reality. In fact, the older I get, the less control I feel anyone has over anything, including the quality of one’s work. Outright fatalism tempts me, though I don’t succumb. In the realm of the arts, the realization that we can have deeply memorable experiences with bad works—and dull experiences with well-made ones—can lead us to a free-floating aesthetic relativism, analogous in some ways to apolitical liberalism of the West Wing variety. Everyone has preferences, but the important thing to remember is that we’re all just people. De gustibus non est disputandum. The more sophisticated version of this argument is the common belief that “good taste” reduces to the desire to accrue cultural capital—a claim that removes taste from the black box that relativism puts it in, but does so by reducing it to a wispy epiphenomenon at best.
But given the ubiquity of aesthetic experiences—sublime, ridiculous, weird, movingly disgusting—and the fact that they are shared often enough to stand, in some sense, external to the self, this relativistic stance becomes hard to sustain. Nobody seems to stick to relativism, in aesthetics as in politics, for very long. We reach for the normative languages of “good” and “bad” art, of “genius” and “talent,” as we eventually reach for the language of “good” and “evil,” because the experiences we label with such language are ubiquitous and often shared. (No sooner had some theorists declared the term genius off-limits than a generation realized that we needed a word for whatever Kate Bush is.) And we distrust these same normative languages because we (rightly) fear participating in an unjust hegemony, or because we (wrongly) conflate subjective with private, indeterminate with unreal.
The blending of “high” and “low,” and the temptation of aesthetic relativism that comes with it, has been with us at least since the beginning of the twentieth century—when Henri Rousseau was acclaimed a genius for his ostentatiously naive paintings, and the Surrealists found unexpected inspiration in the careless, breathless style of the Fantômas novels. Cave art and African masks, made by people then presumed to be “primitive” in some inescapable sense, made Pablo Picasso and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska who they were. It never went away in literary studies, where first the author’s intention, and then just the author, were declared off-limits to criticism. The films and paintings of Andy Warhol, the music of Sun Ra and John Cage and Brian Eno and then of the more committedly amateur postpunk artists, and finally the creative plagiarism of hip-hop DJs and writers like Kathy Acker, all raised the question: Is it still art if you don’t know or control what you’re doing? Knowledge of tradition didn’t necessarily matter; training didn’t necessarily matter; meaning didn’t necessarily matter; vision didn’t necessarily matter. This process of aesthetic reassessment resembled the way Christian theology every so often rediscovers the frankly antinomian possibilities of a salvation initiated and completed wholly by God. If our hard work doesn’t matter, why bother?
In the early 1960s, two now-famous arguments emerged that seemed to offer the promise of stabilizing things somewhat. The philosopher Arthur Danto begins his 1964 essay “The Artworld” by acknowledging that the word art now names too many disparate things for someone to be simply good at it, as you might be good, say, at changing tires. One could argue, until around the time of the post-Impressionists, that art (Danto means Western art) meant some kind of imitation: Praxiteles gets a slab of marble and cuts away everything that doesn’t look like a resting nymph. Monet paints until he only has things that look like light on water. And then—on or about December 1910, to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf—the nature of art changed:
In terms of the prevailing artistic theory…it was impossible to accept [post-Impressionist works] as art unless inept art: otherwise they could be discounted as hoaxes, self-advertisements, or the visual counterparts of a madman’s ravings. So to get them accepted as art, on a footing with the Transfiguration (not to speak of a Landseer stag), required not so much a revolution in taste as a theoretical revision of rather considerable proportions, involving not only the artistic enfranchisement of these objects, but an emphasis upon newly significant features of accepted artworks, so that quite different accounts of their status as artworks would now have to be given.55xArthur Danto, “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy 61:19 (October 1964): 573.
Danto captures something important and true about our experience of art: Once part of the game involves proposing new kinds of activity as art, it changes the way we read everything that came before. When, for example, Kathy Acker steals freely from older texts, both to say certain things that she wishes to say and to dramatize the way her intentions and meanings get tripped up by the recalcitrance of language itself, she adds another layer of meaning to every previous novelist, a layer consisting precisely of the fact that they did not do this.66xThis is my construal of Danto’s Section IV, 582–84. Incompetent movies, in a similar way, can increase our appreciation of competence, while relieving our boredom with it.
But Danto’s argument, with its implication that anything can be art, also points toward chaos. The problem with chaos is not that it is dangerous, but that it is not that interesting; as far as the human, perceiving subject is concerned, it is, in fact, not anything. We apprehend it, perhaps are stimulated by it, because there is some order or form or tendency that it contrasts with. Among other reasons, Plan 9 from Outer Space is funny because it’s not likely the first movie you’ve ever seen. You have several ideas of what “acting” should look like, so that whatever Tor Johnson and Vampira are doing in the film, you know it isn’t good acting. (Indeed, they help you like good acting even more.)
So Danto provides a kind of backstop: For an activity to be art, it has to emerge from within “the art world,” from someone who has some amount of training or background in art. Andy Warhol’s chauffeur, whistling off-key, is not yet an artist, in Danto’s argument, but if Warhol, seeking to amuse Lou Reed and Paul Morrissey, imitates his chauffeur’s off-key whistling, that is art. So what if the chauffeur, overhearing Warhol, imitates him in return? Danto’s argument seems to imply that the only sustainable basis on which to maintain the separation between art and non-art is institutional and biographical: who knew whom, who got money from where, how someone secured an artistic apprenticeship, whether they know they’re “doing art.” This feels like a demystifying assertion, but, oddly enough, it seems to have made the split between artists and everyone else permanent. We know now that there is nothing separating us from Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst—not skill, not intelligence, not vision, not moral purpose, for neither man seems to have any of these things. There is nothing to them besides money. But who the hell has money?
The same year Danto published “The Artworld,” Susan Sontag responded to the evident fact that bad art could be hugely enjoyable with “Notes on ‘Camp.’” The essay has been discussed to death elsewhere, and as an examination of the psychology of a person who enjoys, say, overblown and formulaic B movies, it is still hard to surpass. What interests me about “Notes on ‘Camp,’” at this remove, is how firmly Sontag positions “the good taste of bad taste” (her capsule definition of camp) more or less as Mystery Science Theater 3000 positioned its captive audience—off on a satellite:
Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. We value it because it succeeds—in being what it is and, presumably, in fulfilling the intention that lies behind it. We assume a proper, that is to say, straightforward, relation between intention and performance. By such standards, we appraise the Iliad, Aristophanes’ plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, Chartres, the poetry of Donne, The Divine Comedy, Beethoven’s quartets, and—among people—Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola. In short, the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.77xSusan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” The Cult Film Reader (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2008), 49. The Sontag essay was originally published in 1964.
With one hand, Sontag offers a way of reading that could make nearly anything—a child’s painting, a candy-bar wrapper, the deposition of a truly stupid government official, Danto’s “hoaxes” and “self-advertisements” and “ravings”—at least somewhat revelatory. With the other hand, she relegates that way of reading to the sidelines. There was a dominant, a normal way of reading to which this conceptualization offered an interesting supplement, but we must not confuse the two.
Knowing what we do about Sontag’s sexuality, it is hard not to read this section of her essay without thinking about the way her sidelining of camp resembles a certain, rather dated kind of apologetic argument on behalf of gay and bisexual people: What we do is just another form of desire! It is too small to threaten the far more important work of having children and maintaining cultural continuity! In fact, it’s weird and kind of lonely! Go easy on us! Regarding sexuality, this strategy turned out to be based on false premises. In a society where arguments for gay and trans acceptance are taken at least intermittently seriously, and where gay marriage seems (momentarily) safe, heterosexuality itself has, in some ways, changed its content. It is perfectly easy to envision a couple consisting of a cisgendered man and a cisgendered woman whose fantasy lives have (mainly) thus far focused on the opposite sex, who passionately love each other, and who consider themselves “queer” because of an otherwise hard-to-name disaffection from what they imagine heterosexuality feels like to the “average” person. On the other side, the increased visibility of trans women and men has forced many people who consider themselves heterosexuals to nevertheless wonder whether they would consider dating a person who, at the moment, has genitals like theirs, and to answer, theoretically or in reality, “Yes.” Few psychologists in 1964 would have considered such a person to be heterosexual at all. Quite possibly, he’d have had you committed. I think, too, that the possibility of camp, once admitted, changes our relationship to “good” art, to art that has what Sontag calls a “straightforward…relation between intention and performance.”
Throwing Canons into Chaos
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (1989–2014)—a shot-for-shot remake of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s classic adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark, filmed during summer vacation by a group of undersupervised latchkey children in the years 1982–88, with two sequences added in 2014—tests the theories of both Danto and Sontag, to hilarious, destabilizing effect. It is an art object made by nonartists; it is a piece of bad art that commandeers and reorients our reading of a generally agreed-upon classic. It breaches the boundaries between bad and good from within. It is a satellite that changes its planet’s orbit.
When I first read about this film, many years ago, I knew simultaneously that I had to see it and that I never would. Imagine the rights issues involved! Surely George Lucas, that zealous hunter of Star Wars Christmas Special VHS dubs, and Steven Spielberg, his name famously misspelled in The Adaptation’s credits as “Spielburg,” would never allow this film to see the light of day. Imagine my joy, then, when a screening of a documentary about the film that was shown in my town a few summers ago turned out—with no advance notice—to include a screening of the movie itself as well.
Set in the 1930s, the original Raiders of the Lost Ark concerns the exploits of European and American archaeologists notorious for their single-minded pursuit of other cultures’ treasures. Archaeology itself, however ethically or unethically done, requires attention to kinds and degrees of detail that, under any gaze less intent than that of the obsessive, don’t show up at all—a faint trace seen or overlooked can change our understanding of the object itself, or of the whole world that made it. Adding another layer, the film is itself a kind of nostalgic excavation of the feelings aroused in Lucas and Spielberg by ’30s adventure serials they watched on television in the ’50s. And just as Indiana Jones nearly perishes in, alternately, a jungle, a lost temple, and a desert, Spielberg and Lucas, and their cast and crew, endured nightmarish sweat, illness, accident, and dehydration while shooting in Tunisia. The famous scene in which an exasperated Indy shoots a glowering swordsman was inspired not by genius but by Harrison Ford’s diarrhea—he couldn’t stay on his feet long enough to film the scripted swordfight.
The makers of The Adaptation mimicked this devotion in their turn by risking, at various points, arrest, asphyxiation, immolation, unemployment, and sundered friendships. In the accompanying documentary, Raiders! (2015), you watch in horror as they set fire to someone’s mom’s basement. You watch with deeper horror, tinged with embarrassment, as one of the former kids, now a family man in his forties, makes one call after another to an increasingly exasperated boss, trying to negotiate enough time off to finish the one scene he didn’t manage to nail in his teens. Here is a person who follows our culture’s advice to artists—Never give up. See your vision through!—in a case where he should clearly stop.
Yet it was only while watching The Adaptation, wishing not so much for the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant but for the intervention of Child Protective Services, that I realized how much Lucas and Spielberg’s story functions as a critique of such devotion. Indiana Jones, handsome and unflappable, is at heart no less a sweaty monomaniac than his rival Belloq, or Toht, the dough-faced Nazi who is both men’s dark doppelgänger. Indy and Belloq seek hidden knowledge; so, via torture and threats, does Toht. At a key moment, Indy discovers that he can’t destroy the Ark, even though his failure seems likely to submit him and, for all he knows, the world, to Nazi domination. Only by finally curbing his insatiable curiosity does he survive to the end of the movie. So as not to be destroyed by its power, Indy and his lover, Marion, shut their eyes when the Nazis open the Ark, and the Washington officials who sent him on his mission symbolically follow suit in the film’s comic epilogue: The Ark will sit in a government warehouse forever, its great power checked by the eternal incuriosity of the bureaucrat.
Read against history, the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark is unspeakably dishonest. Opening Arks is pretty much what the American military-industrial-academic complex does best—most famously in inventing, then using, the weapons that finished World War II. As myth, though, the ending satisfies. It firmly resolves the film’s conflict; it picks a side. Where unchecked obsessiveness unleashes abysmal powers, American pragmatism, our knowing-when-to-quit, will firmly close them down again. Ordinary moviegoers, sipping their supersized Cokes, find this resolution perhaps more reassuring than is good for them.
But this ending, too, takes on renewed force when you watch The Adaptation, especially viewed alongside Raiders! The documentary forces us to look closely at the costs that making Adaptation imposed on everyone involved; it makes the film a morality tale about hubris rather than a curio. (The scene that nearly cost one of the men his job could have been done with miniatures. Instead, adults spent thousands of dollars on a setup that consumed over a week of their lives and nearly killed a stuntman.) Even without this background knowledge, we finish viewing The Adaptation with a sigh of relief and gratitude: The stunt is over now; the grown-up children who made the film have survived their self-endangering madness. With every special effect, every fake fight, we have been conscious of the real risks they have taken, the risks the original film’s professional sheen erases.
In this way, The Adaptation subtly amplifies the ambivalence toward obsession that was always present in Raiders—it even adds a layer of truth to what was probably, for Spielberg, just a lagniappe of an ending. The derivative text becomes truer to its own meanings than the original, in the same way that Pierre Menard’s Quixote says things Cervantes wasn’t self-conscious enough to intend. The bad film’s meanings expand, swallowing the meanings of its good parent text. Eventually the categories “good” and “bad,” “original” and “derivative,” begin to seem inadequate: boxes in which to hide powerful objects.
Such a reading throws canons into chaos. The Adaptation resembles a “movie,” as we conventionally define the term, less than it does the way I used to attempt to replicate the entire Star Wars trilogy with my action figures when I was six or seven. Yet it yields a meaning more interesting than what Raiders of the Lost Ark gave us. What does this imply about skill, intention, pedigree? The satellite has swallowed its planet. Nor can the power of The Adaptation be explicated via Danto’s art-world argument. We can, if we want, say that the teenagers who made the film are partial citizens of an art world—they watch movies obsessively, study special effects and makeup from the fan magazines of the period, and so forth. But nothing good about the film results from their choices. Everything that interests me about the film is inadvertent—in particular, the way it makes its parent text seem like a series of hedged bets.
Christian theology has made peace with its own antinomian tendencies—its simultaneous proclamations that we must discipline ourselves and that grace will breach and flood our flawed little disciplines—by insisting on the importance of paradox. Both these assertions are true, and true in their full strength; they don’t meet in the middle. My most memorable experiences of art include A Brighter Summer Day, Jules and Jim, Only Angels Have Wings. They also include Robot Monster, Glen or Glenda?, Godzilla vs. Megalon. The love of bad movies has made me both more observant, and more tolerant, of the little inadvertencies that crop up even in the greatest works. If, as a child, I loved Hitchcock’s Notorious because it was an exciting adventure story, a lifetime of watching incoherent, ideologically-at-war-with-themselves movies has made me appreciate the way Notorious is also far too sunken in its own weirdness to notice how conflicted it is about women.
My father and I still regularly talk about bad movies we’ve seen. During our Sunday phone calls, when things turn contentious, our mutual interest in bad cinema serves as a hedge against topics we’re better off not discussing, chiefly politics. Regarding which: I am disappointed in him, he is disappointed in me. To put it this way is to frame the thing liberally, as though I were to say, We are the same on the inside, but kept apart by meaningless ideological preferences. But I don’t want to frame the thing liberally. I believe that I am right to be a leftist and that he is wrong to be a conservative. I have worked very hard, as has he, trying to be right about things. I learned from him that ideas matter, that it’s worth trying hard to be right about them. But one of the ideas that I believe matters, one of the things I believe I am right about, is that the pain he has when we fight is morally significant, not only to me, because he is my dad, but in some abstract moral sense, because he is a person. And I know from bitter experience that I cannot bend him to the left, which means that when we discuss politics we both suffer pointlessly.
So I try to right the conversation by telling him about terrible movies I think he should see, or reminding him of ones we’ve already seen. And as I do so, I wonder how I am affecting him, what gulfs there are between the person I am attempting to be in our conversation and the easily-outraged prig I know he sometimes thinks I am, and where those gulfs came from. If the phrase “meaning of a life” is analogous to the phrase “meaning of a word,” or “meaning of a sentence,” then none of us has that much control over the meanings of our lives. Just as everything you say can be misheard, or scrambled by differences in connotation or dialect, your presence in the world rarely says what you intend. You are a walking contradiction between aspiration and effect. The actual you orbits the intended you, the firm and defensible you, the serious you; or perhaps it’s the other way around. This is a quality you share with me, and with everyone, and that makes all of us that desperate and self-deluded and wholly compelling phenomenon, the bad movie.