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listen to my words

Bad Cinema

So I have been asked what I mean when I say “Bad Cinema.” The thing is, it’s not an easy thing for me to encapsulate any other way. Which is, after all, why I settled on the phrase.

One proposed definition is “movies that are so bad they’re good.” And to be honest, Bad Cinema encompasses a lot of these sorts of movies. Robot Jox is a good example of this. Robot Jox is a B-movie, set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the remaining nations (the Soviet Union among them) have agreed that instead of full on wars or weapons of mass destruction, they will settle disputes with what amounts to Ultimate Fighting Championships – between giant robots. There’s no rationale for how on earth societies settle on this, or why they even abide by it. The budget was so low that the props and costumes were made primarily out of bits you’d find in any local Radio Shack.

What did the film have going for it? Well, they managed to avoid wholesale copying of “mecha” style robots. Otherwise… not really anything.

But I like it. So by default, I throw it in the Bad Cinema category.

But that doesn’t work for the main body of what I consider Bad Cinema.

The second simplest way I can put it (since “Bad Cinema” is the first simplest way) is that these are movies that have at least one flash of absolute brilliance in them. Something genuine and real, and almost objectively well done – but that are otherwise so poorly made that they have no chance of commercial or critical success.

Many movies with cult followings fit into this category: Buckaroo Bonzai, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (the camp approach on the last one walks the brilliant line of farcical silliness without ever crossing into just plain stupid, which is the problem with so many spoof movies, including all of Tomatoes’s sequels.

They all have that one piece of inspirational awesomeness that draws certain people who are able to overlook the flaws. Highlander is another example. By all objective measures, the TV series was a better made production. Critics collectively gave the movie a “meh.” If it weren’t for international audiences, the theatrical release would have been a loss for the studio.

All the same, the ideas and the story that lay under the movie were enough to inspire Queen to sit down and write a bunch of songs for it. It launched a multi-film and multi-media franchise. The catch-phrase “There can be only one” is widely known these days. Taken as a whole, it’s not a brilliant achievement. But the component parts of it reveal some wonderful creativity and some powerful ideas that can be truly moving.

Another example: Godzilla (1954). This isn’t what most people think of when they think of great cinema. It’s also an example that initially seems to be arguing against myself. Godzilla was initially panned by critics. But the people disagreed sharply. It broke records for ticket sales. The only reason it didn’t win best picture in the Japanese Academy Awards was because it was up against Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (a fantastic movie by almost any measure).

You know what’s awesome about Godzilla? This is a movie about the horrific accidental result of a nuclear weapons testing – made concrete in the form of a literal giant monster. And the only way to stop it is to create a new kind of weapon of mass destruction and using it on their own territory. And where does it take place? The only country to have had a nuclear weapon used against them – less than ten years after the flight of the Enola Gay. It is powerful that the creators would have the courage to examine the issue that way in the mass media.

Of course, when I talk about Bad Cinema, I don’t mean just the 1954 movie. I’m talking about most of Toho’s output, as well as even the Mathew Broderick version. One of my favorite installments in the franchise is Final Wars, which features … well, pretty much every rubber suit monster Toho ever conceived. And they just keep coming. Also included? A Power Rangers-esque set of super soldiers who do battle with humanoid aliens (who control the monsters) and each other. Good times. It is, essentially, pro wrestling in rubber suits. I think, honestly, it’s that homage to the original that makes it so appealing. It’s not an attempt to recreate the phenomenon. It’s an acknowledgement that giant monsters stomping tiny things is pretty awesome on its own.

So that’s Bad Cinema. I’m not sure if I can reduce it any more than that, other than to cite more movies and explain what I love about them.

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