Time to state the obvious: people who say “it’s so bad it’s good” are intellectual cowards. They are hiding behind a pose of irony and camp, afraid to make a sincere public commitment to their own taste. Camp itself, as defined by Susan Sontag was always supposed to be a subversive, rebellious impulse, but she was wrong: it is the ultimate capitulation to peer-pressure and commitment to conformity.
And it is classist. The retreat to a pose of aesthetic superiority – in addition to growing out of an insecurity that needs addressing – is based on a mimicry of bourgeois values. The superficialities of budget are confused with real aesthetic pleasure. This makes the betrayal of budget all the more anathema. When films like Heaven’s Gate and Waterworld violated the limits of their budget and earned the reprehension of the movie industry’s power structure, the viewing public was quick to ape them and heap scorn upon those films. That both were highly political films critical of capital is not irrelevant here. And it’s not unrealistic to see this reaction as a displacement of anger against dull but bourgeois-endorsed films.
As for the aforementioned insecurity, the default position of our web-debauched time is “that sucks.” We are so interconnected that our innermost thoughts are the last preserve of privacy. Hence, we lie, afraid that honesty is an exposed surface to be jabbed and attacked by the quips of our cohort.
The pleasures of film watching are highly individual and often idiosyncratic. But to state those feelings openly is to risk the criticisms and contempt of public taste. What better, and more dishonest, way than to continue to imbibe in the taboo while expending no intellectual effort and risking little exposure than by adopting a superior stance of “it’s so bad it’s good” toward the film. And it is lazy, while the intellectual defense of art is active, engaged, and, in a small but significant way, participatory.
The “so bad it’s good” movies are most often those that did not have the budget for high-end cameras, film stock, special effects, make-up, or lighting. But they are watched and enjoyed, secretly, because they nonetheless attain movie magic in other ways: vivid stories, transgressive themes, unusual subject matter, innovative techniques, etc. Historically, those elements have often been appropriated quickly by more mainstream productions. Then the firmly established flaws of low budget films – cheap sets, bad acting – can be safely condemned.
A further word on “bad acting”: No one knows what good acting is. Is the bland, unemotional, Roger Moore-ish deadpan the new minimalism, or just crap? Is chewing up the scenery overacting or Oscar-worthy? Few have taken enough acting courses to have an informed opinion, and no one knows with any real certainty. Criticisms of acting are the ultimate in subjectivity. All we know is what we like. Extremism moves us in some instances; the natural and believable works for us in others. And they can switch places effortlessly.
So I will hereby declare an end of irony and a commitment to sincerity. And I will put my money where my mouth is: I love Waterworld. And I think it is a very, very good movie. The story is exciting. The cinematography is beautiful. The budget busting sets and battle scenes are glorious. Kevin Costner, yes, Costner, makes a wonderful stalwart, flinty-eyed hero. Jeanne Tripplehorn is sexy, and she has nothing to do but be sexy and endangered and I am perfectly ok with that because I think the current definition of filmmaking feminism as having every heroine know karate is fucking stupid. Dennis Hopper is Dennis Hopper: always the best whack-job villain possible. Tons of great character actors like R.D. Call, Michael Jeter, and John Fleck fill out the cast. The trimaran…oh god, the trimaran.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Creeping Terror is another film I enjoy. It is not my favorite low-budget science fiction-horror from the 1960s, but since it often makes “worst films of all time lists” it calls out for some defense. If for nothing else, the film’s dance hall scenes provide a realism – and rocking beat – more evocative of the era than any big budget film I have ever seen. The daily lives of people fishing, working, hanging out, and making out are depicted awkwardly but accurately. The slug monster is cheap and laughable, but equally loveable. Even if it fails at creating movie magic, it is an honest attempt, something CGI can never lay claim to. So the film charms me, and I can watch it repeatedly, sinking into the pleasures of film without apologies or irony.