The Beauty of a Bad Movie
With the release of The Disaster Artist just a week away, I’d like to make a bold statement: The Room, the film upon with The Disaster Artist is based, is a very bad movie.
I should know. I’ve intentionally watched hundreds of bad films. Not only did I have a YouTube channel dedicated reviewing garbage films, but I’ve been a life-long connoisseur of horrible movies. A long-time fan of both Mystery Science Theater 3000 AND Rocky Horror Picture Show, I know and cherish my bad films.
But I used to think that his was out of some kind of love for pain, even coining the term “Cinemasochist” to describe my viewing choices. But, some time ago, I realized something important, I, and many like me, simply enjoy bad movies, no masochism required.
That’s because bad movies can be beautiful and The Room proves that. But understanding why that’s the case takes a deeper dive into the world of great, bad movies.
Defining “Bad” Movies
Filmmaking is one of those strange areas where we describe “bad” as simply being “not good”.
For a film to be good, it needs to be at least serviceable in all of the skills that go into making a film. This includes all of the five elements of the film, narrative (plot), cinematography, sound, mise-en-scene (sets and locations) and editing.
You can have the most beautiful film ever shot at the most amazing locations and edited masterfully but it doesn’t matter if the plot of boring and confusing, it’s still a bad film.
To that end, it’s easy to think of a film as a car. A car needs an engine, brakes, suspension, tires, etc. to function. The finest motor isn’t going very far on just rims.
When cars fail, they can fail in a myriad of ways. They can have a minor electrical issue and pull over safely and slowly at the side of the road or they throw a fuel line, catch fire and explode.
Sure, both are failures but one of those is an entertaining failure and, when it comes to film, it’s all about entertainment.
Are You Not Entertained?
According to IMDB, The Room is 99 minutes long. I had no idea.
I’ve seen the film dozens of times but couldn’t tell you, even approximately, how long the film was.
But that’s the thing about cinema. It has something of a time warp effect. A great film can make two hours pass in seconds where a bad film can make those same two hours feel like a life sentence.
One the hallmarks of great films is that they make the time pass quickly and they do. However, bad films can do it just as easily. They can be every bit of magical and entertaining, but in very different ways.
If a great film is an F1 car racing around a track, The Room is a truck full of burning dumpsters careening off a cliff onto an orphanage. One is horrible, but both are entertaining.
But the problem is that, just as the kinds of accidents that turn cars into fiery explosions are hard to replicate, capturing the lightning in a bottle of a great bad movie is just as difficult.
Even Tommy Wiseau, the director/star/producer/writer of The Room, has struggled. His sitcom series The Neighbors fails to recapture the magic from The Room. Part of it is the familiarity with Wiseau’s formula but it’s Wiseau’s self-awareness. In 2003 he was trying to create a big-budget masterpiece, in 2014 he was in on the joke.
And that’s part of the problem, when we feel like a filmmaker either doesn’t care or is trying to make a great bad film, it loses all punch. One of the reason these films are great is that we are watching an earnest effort at filmmaking go down in flames.
It sounds cruel and certainly is, but without that ambition, there is no risk. It’s like watching a toy car go up in flames. It might be amusing, but it’s not nearly as entertaining.
However, it’s not just pure cruelty that makes ambition so important. It’s that earnestness, even failed earnestness, comes through the screen. In a Hollywood era filled with reboots, remakes, sequels and cash-ins, an honest attempt to do something with (misguided) passion is a breath of fresh air.
Earnestness connects with and endears the audience in a way in inside jokes and cash ins don’t. Without that love, there’s just no way to connect with the audience
The X Factor
But even when all of the stars align, there isn’t always movie magic.
Take, for example, Manos: The Hands of Fate. Another iconic bad film, it was made famous by Mystery Science Theater 3000 because the film is almost completely unwatchable without commentary.
On paper, you have all of the makings of a great bad film. You have a clueless director who is trying to bring a vision to light, a film that fails in every respect and a cult following.
However, Manos committed one sin that The Room didn’t: It was boring.
With 70 minutes of runtime, roughly 3,000 hours of it was given to boring driving scenes and, even when the “action” starts, nothing really happens. Without Joel and the bots cracking jokes (and MST3K cutting out much of the driving) the film is effectively unwatchable.
The Room, for all of its flaws, is never dull. Much like Rocky Horror, it’s never slow, it never languishes and it aims to entertain with every scene and every frame. There’s constantly something going on, just what’s going on is laughably confusing, terribly acted and relentlessly stupid.
If The Room is the aforementioned tuck carrying burning dumpsters careening off a cliff, Manos is a scooter reaching a slow, depressing stop in the grass beside the road.
The fact that MST3K made the film a cult classic says more about the skill of the people behind MST3K than it does the people behind Manos.
I’m no filmmaker. I’m not even really a film critic. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching hundreds of bad movies it’s this:
If you’re going to make a movie, make it entertaining.
Don’t waste a single scene, don’t waste a single second, don’t waste a single frame. Make it entertaining. No matter when I pause the film, something interesting should be on the screen.
Sure, film buffs can rabble on about how greats of cinema used dead time, such as Alfred Hitchcock in North by Northwest, but you are not Hitchcock and you are not making one of the most masterful suspense movies of all time.
Make an entertaining film and, after you do that a few times successfully, then maybe you can start breaking he rules.
Because, no matter how hard a film fails, if it makes 90 minutes disappear, it will find an audience (and likely a place on my shelf).