Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Makes Great Bad Art? by Bastard Keith:

It’s true, my entire experience of the film was one of astonishment. First, that it existed at ALL. Then that the director, Timur Bekmambetov (he of the vile action flick Wanted and the grandly amusing Russian vampire epic Night Watch) seemed to be playing it utterly straight. Finally, I was left in slack-jawed amazement at the sheer pleasure I was taking from scene to scene. I knew as I was watching that it was not a good film, but I was equally sure that it was a delightful and frequently amazing one. Never again will there be a motion picture that features our 16th president chopping up hordes of kung fu vampires with his black sidekick atop a speeding locomotive.

This brings up what is perhaps a more pertinent question than the one in the title: If bad art becomes enjoyable, is it still bad art? This is complicated. The gays, as usual, got here before anyone else did. Camp was initially defined as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals. So as a noun, ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, et cetera. (cf. quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behaviour.” (Thanks, OED) It eventually grew into something broader, a notion of art so over the top that its quality was secondary to its fascination. When gay men seized on unintentionally terrible old cinema (its shoddy glamour, its torrid melodrama, its outdated sense of shock), the modern notion of camp was born. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 made a legendary broadcasting career out of teasing the silly, perverse, sometimes homoerotic subtext from self-serious cinema (it also marked a watershed moment in “dude” camp, a moment where the jokes took on a heteronormative panic in intimations of queerness).

Dave Kehr, one of our canniest print critics, observed that “Camp cannot be made, only found,” and of course he’s right. The great works of modern camp genius are not attempts at comically bad filmmaking, but born of genuine commitment to an artistic vision. Russ Meyer, for instance, may have had a sense of humor, but his keynote works are imbued with as much auteurist passion as anything by Kubrick or Welles. John Waters may seem a frivolous or primitive filmmaker to some, but you know a Waters film when you watch one. It is impossible to say whether their movies are, strictly, GOOD, but they’re never boring. Does awkward camera work, hamfisted editing, jarring sound design, ridiculous dialogue, and stiff, often incompetent acting make a movie bad? Objectively, sure. But when those elements combine harmoniously into a sublime viewing experience, what’s the takeaway? I’ve seen much more professionally assembled films than, say, Supervixens, but few as continuously captivating. How can something this demonstrably NOT GOOD be GREAT?