So far so bad
There are many kinds of movie fans, from MCU bros to delicate cineastes, and among them we recognize a cohort enamored of movies “so bad they’re good.” Thus, Bad Movies is a cult category, one that not everyone can get into because the movies, while possibly entertaining are still, you know, bad. Life is of limited duration after all and you never know which movie will be your last. It could be Wild Strawberries. Or it could be Hard Ticket to Hawaii. So, choose wisely.
I am one of those—an enjoyer of the “bad.” My favorite podcast, The Flop House, is dedicated to this category. I own on DVD—or in some cases even blu ray or 4K disk—a number of movies that are bad, such as one of the Transformers franchise, I forget which, and movies that are so bad they’re good, like John Rad’s Dangerous Men or my new 12-film Andy Sidaris collection.
But why don’t we ever talk about the movies that are “so good they’re bad?” I believe I am a member of this cult as well, though not always. These are movies that are inarguably great that are still difficult to watch for one reason or another. For example, how many members of the modern audience, even a highly-self-selected sub-group of cinephiles, would want to sit through F.W. Murnau’s indisputably great and stunningly beautiful and innovative Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans—or, for that matter, even knows it exists? This is a Hollywood movie that even won an Academy Award.
I am not intending to bemoan the current state of film literacy, which is just one of those things. No, I mean to say that there are a number of great films—and each year, a new crop of contenders—that have, how about, a very low watchability factor. They’re boring. Even impenetrable. I will further clarify that I passionately love some of these films. Take Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, his kaleidoscopic, autobiographical traumnovelle from 1975. I must place this high on my personal favorites list (my fantasy Sight and Sound poll list, perhaps), but I can’t pretend it’s what I put on the TV on a Saturday night, in spite of its heart-stopping beauty and perfection.
Nor do I consider boredom a dead end as a film viewer. Sometimes it is necessary, with a certain type of film, to let go of narrative expectations entirely and sometimes even what we’ve been trained to understand as a film, and just roll with it. Filmmakers as various as Chantal Akerman, James Benning, Bela Tarr, David Lynch and Gus Van Sant have made stunning masterpieces that roll along for long stretches of real time.
This “slow cinema” has the effect of driving the viewer “out of the movie” and into a strange place for a filmgoer—herself. And as such a viewer contends with the duration unspooling before her, she realizes she is contending with herself. This begins to feel foolish, so she lets go. And discovers, perhaps a long while later, that she has sunk into a strange intimacy with the characters on the screen. Their time becomes her time. This effect can be mesmerizing and incredibly “real.” But you have to go through the boredom—which is not a quality we associate with a “good” movie.
As a film teacher, when I have screenings I have to think about how to walk the line with my young-adult students. If I legitimately bore them, they’ll tune out. But if I create a situation where instead of simply boring them, a movie bores into them, I will have succeeded in showing them something.