Beyond the Valley of Suckiness
Why do God-awful films become cult fetish objects?
By Daedalus Howell
"Failure" is the new f-word. In recent years, the notion of failure has become something of an academic and media flashpoint for everyone from Malcom Gladwell to FailCon 2010, a convention celebrating entrepreneurial failures that ponders the positive possibilities of blowing it. No one, however, seems to blow it with higher entertainment value than filmmakers, resulting in many an effort justifiably rated F. For some, this is something of a blessing, as is the case with the legendary 1990 flop Troll 2, which has not only found redemption as a cult film but has warranted examination in a recently released feature documentary.
Best Worst Movie, released on DVD this month by Docudrama Films, examines the ill-fated, pseudo-sequel to horror-fantasy film Troll and the cult following it has developed in the intervening 20 years. That the second Troll film is related to its predecessor only in title (thanks to canny distributors eager to capitalize on the minor success of the original) is the least of the issues facing Troll 2, and Best Worst Movie director Michael Paul Stephenson examines it with an ennobling tenderness. As well he should. As an aspiring child actor, Stephenson played the film's hero, a whining 10-year-old boy whose family's house-swap is blighted by goblins. (Of course, no actual "trolls" appear in the film.)
The New Yorker heralded Stephenson's Best Worst Movie as "hilarious and sad . . . priceless," which is entirely merited. His cinematic postmortem presents a cogent case for why certain truly terrible films become beloved cinematic fetish objects. The secret ingredient? Earnestness. A rotten flick produced with total sincerity and a commitment to its asinine premise stands a chance of scoring a half-life in midnight screenings and breathless approbation from movie bloggers. The only irony allowed is that brought by the audience itself. It's an odd pas de deux between the viewer and the viewed, wherein derision and adoration begin to blur, and somehow over the course of a film's runtime, catharsis and redemption are found by both audience and artist.
In this scenario, filmmakers must come to accept that their artistic intentions are irrelevant when a cult takes ownership of their work and uses it to foment community, no matter how farcical their objectives. The audience, for its part, goes from merely enduring a work to endearing it, committing its every nuance to memory and frequently staging reenactments of pivotal scenes, as Best Worst Movie reveals on several occasions. Then, at some point, the cult's ironic pose melts away like a sugar coating, and the bittersweet truth that some Quixotic schmuck poured his savings and soul into a piece of shit becomes distastefully evident. Too committed to turn back, the audience swallows this sad fact, eulogizing good intentions while enshrining failure.
Be assured that making crappy movies (with heart) is not a recommended career move for would-be auteurs. It is, however, cause for reflection, particularly since self-reflection on the part of some filmmakers seems so hard-won. The Room, which, like Troll 2, has had numerous screenings (including one last week at Carnegie Mellon University, no less) is such a steaming pile of ego-aggrandizement that director Tommy Wiseau tellingly claims that it was his intention to create a "black comedy," though several cast members have steadfastly denied this. (Wiseau accepted Harvard's Ivory Tower Award as Filmmaker of the Year several months ago.)
Wiseau is not alone. Director James Nguyen, whose take on avian terror, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, is differentiated from Alfred Hitchcock's iconic Birds by virtue of the fact that his killer birds were principally "eagles and vultures" (as relayed during a recent radio interview with this columnist), has a legion of "fans" who have driven interest in his film to an international level with copious press. Usually aligned with the "shock and terror" portion of the title, the rubbernecking media coverage of the film only adds more wind beneath Nguyen's wings, and interestingly, he doesn't appear to care that his art is some kind of inside joke. The fact is, against all conceivable odds, he made it.
And therein lies the key. These guys are underdogs, and given our cultural proclivity to root for the little guy, it's little wonder that these films find audiences to champion them. One might suspect it's not so much the films that audiences are identifying with as it is their makers. If that's failure, it's really not so bad.
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